Mideast: 'It Must Be Decisive'

Rumors of preparations for a coming gulf war fall mostly into one category: "impossible to disprove." According to an Arab intelligence officer in the region, U.S. Special Forces teams are already inside Iraq, hunting Scud missiles and probing defenses. And the U.S. Army has deployed in the Mafraq governate in Jordan, ready to open a western front, according to critics in Amman. "Ludicrous," says Jordan's King Abdullah. "No comment," say the Americans. A division's worth of Abrams main battle tanks have disappeared from Europe and may have been the same ones spotted atop transport trucks in Kuwait last week. Any tanks they brought in recently, insist the Americans, were for routine exercises and would soon go back home. And so on: the next gulf war has not begun, and may still be averted, but you can already tick off the usual first casualty.

The broader truth, though, is that everybody is preparing for war. American forces have stepped up exercises: three major ones are now underway in Kuwait or off its coast, another began recently in Qatar and Special Forces start training this week in Jordan. The U.S. Army's CENTCOM is practicing relocation of its Tampa war headquarters to the sprawling al Udeid air base in Qatar. After a slow start this year, U.S. and British airstrikes increased steeply over Iraq last month. The Jordanian deployment has been discreet, but apparently defensive in nature. (The American Army has invited tenders for a hospital and airstrip, according to Jordanian businessmen.) U.S. officials insist that all of the activity is just routine training. A Western official offers a different interpretation: "The Americans have to convince Saddam Hussein they're serious."

Iraq's neighbors, at least, are convinced not only that war is inevitable--but that it's coming soon. Arab intelligence officials in two countries, who spoke on condition they not be identified further, both expected the Americans to attack Saddam as early as mid-November. Some Arab officials privately say they would like Washington to move soon. "It must be quick, it must be strong and it must be decisive," as one Arab minister put it.

Kuwait is taking necessary precautions: last week officials announced plans to begin selling gas masks at cost to the country's 2 million residents. That may be partly related to intelligence intercepts in the region, which tell of a meeting Saddam Hussein had with local military commanders in August. "This campaign will be one of life or death for this regime, and we must use everything we have," he allegedly told them. According to the same source, Saddam told local commanders that if communications were cut with Baghdad, they had authority to fire chemical weapons the moment a ground attack began. "Everyone knows that when it starts, [Saddam] is finished," says a Kuwaiti. "No one expects restraint."