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Bush Administration Undecided On Course of Action With Iraq

By Alan Sipress

Despite a sense of possibility created by the swift U.S. military successes in Afghanistan, Bush administration planners have yet to agree whether to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and how to achieve this, according to officials across the government.

Senior officials have directed their staffs in recent weeks to develop options for confronting Hussein, including a military invasion, support for a local insurgency, backing for a coup and possible combinations of these alternatives.

With some departments still assembling the staff to perform this task, however, the exercise remains far from complete. Senior policy-makers would still like to see some specific ideas by the time Vice President Dick Cheney heads to the Middle East in mid-March to discuss Iraq policy with U.S. allies in the region.

“There’s a lot of work being done on this,” said a senior administration official. “This is getting a lot of focused attention. This is clearly an issue that is being seen differently than it was before September 11. But to the best of my knowledge, no decision has been made and no timetable has been set.”

President Bush has made clear to advisers and foreign leaders since taking office that he would like to see Hussein removed from power. The effort to develop options for confronting the Iraqi leader represents a resumption of the administration’s Iraq policy review, launched early last year and suspended after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But the tenor of the president’s tough comments about Iraq in the State of the Union address last month has injected a renewed sense of purpose into the discussions. His statement that Iraq, Iran and North Korea constitute an “axis of evil” has sparked speculation that the White House is on course for war.

In the absence of an accepted strategy and timeline for moving against Hussein, however, Bush’s declaration that he will not stand by in the face of Iraqi threats is more an expression of willingness to act preemptively against Baghdad than enunciation of a new policy, U.S. officials said. “This did not cross over some fundamental canyon at the time of the State of the Union. It was not a crossing of the Rubicon. That’s for sure,” said another senior administration official.

Bush’s senior national security team had been scheduled to take up the issue of Iraq at a meeting this month but delayed the discussion because of more pressing matters.