The guessing game continues as to when the shooting will start in Baghdad. But now there are some indications as to when it will end.

The Army says it awarded a $12 million "firm-fixed-price contract" to a South Carolina company for a "regional heavy lift for 305 trucks and buses." And where are these vehicles to be lifted to? "Work will be performed in Kuwait," the summary explanation of the contract said, and, more important, "is to be completed by March 27."

So let's see. The Army civil affairs folks probably need the trucks for rebuilding work. The buses could be used to transport displaced people and prisoners -- the military is worried about dealing with mass surrenders. After that, the buses could transport congressional delegations, Agency for International Development workers and then, of course, the expected tourists as democracy blooms for the first time in Iraqi history.

Working backward . . . If the rebuilding and codel phase begin March 27, and the war takes at most a few days, and allowing a week or so for the dust to settle, that would put the first cruise missiles flying in, absolute latest, early March.

Book early to avoid the rush.

Secretary on the Defense

Speaking of the Pentagon . . . The usually masterful Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld seemed to have gotten a bit off stride at Tuesday's press briefing. The clue: when he said, "You know, maybe I ought to consult a lawyer."

This came after what was an unusually rough grilling by reporters about a Defense Department inspector general's probe of allegations against Gen. Tommy R. Franks. The IG is investigating Franks for having his wife sit in on super-classified briefings and for government payment for some of her expenses.

Rumsfeld, rather than clamming up about an ongoing investigation -- one that may eventually require him to render his own judgment as to Franks's culpability -- acknowledged, "I have discussed it with him."

A reporter later noted, "You said you met with him to discuss it. . . ."

"I did not," Rumsfeld said, saying Franks just told him there was an investigation.

Can you spell ex parte?

'Evil' Reincarnate

In addition to the "no value added" flap over draftees in Vietnam, the recent "old Europe" shot and the talk of getting lawyered up Tuesday, the "SecDef" was at it again Wednesday.

"I believe Libya, Cuba and Germany are ones that have indicated they won't help in any respect," Rumsfeld told Congress -- as opposed to the huge coalition of countries that'll be with the United States.

The new "Axis of Evil"? Well, sort of new, since Germany was a member of the original one.

And in This Corner . . .

It was any White House press secretary's dream come true: members of the White House press corps brawling -- verbally -- among themselves. For Ari Fleischer, it was better than the WWF Smackdown.

It started when Russell Mokhiber of the Corporate Crime Reporter said: "You just said the president is a deeply religious man. Jesus Christ was an absolute pacifist. How does the president square his militarism with Jesus's pacifism?"

There was muttering among confused reporters as to the validity of this notion. Then Baltimore radio personality Lester Kinsolving, an Episcopal priest, blasted away. "Jesus Christ wasn't a pacifist," he shouted.

"Well, I think there may be a debate in the press corps about your question, Russell," Fleischer said, starting to enjoy himself immensely.

"How about when Jesus" went to the "temple with a whip, where he beat the hell out of those money-changers?" Kinsolving said. "Does that sound like he's an absolute pacifist, Ari?"

The shouting continued for a few moments until the senior correspondent, Steve Holland of Reuters, finally called the briefing to a halt. But the angry sparring continued for another minute or so after Fleischer left.

Good thing Fleischer keeps those useful foils around.

Speaking of Infighting . . .

Conservative activist Grover Norquist says the American Conservative Union must take tougher action and ban a Florida vendor -- who sold anti-Muslim material at the group's Conservative Political Action Conference last week -- from future conventions.

Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, e-mailed fellow ACU board members this week, calling for a resolution apologizing "for the discomfort and insult that these offensive materials caused."

He also said a CPAC panelist, Frank J. Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy, had impugned the patriotism of a Muslim who works at the White House, because of his religion. Gaffney was formally uninvited from Norquist's "center-right coalition meeting" Wednesday -- the weekly lunch for conservative A-listers.

Gaffney said his comments were "addressing a serious national security issue and do not remotely qualify for his characterization as racist or bigoted."

ACU Chairman David Keene has not committed to banning the vendor and opposes Norquist's resolution. "We are not in the business of enforcing orthodoxy at CPAC or within the movement," he wrote to Norquist in an e-mail he sent to the whole board. "[Gaffney's] views may be obnoxious to you, but I'm sure some people find everything we say about a myriad of issues equally obnoxious."

Bush's Texas Tenure

Correction: President Bush was governor of Texas for about six years. Wednesday's column had him serving eight years.