In the latest sign of a possible delay, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is said to be leaning against a plan to begin a war with bombing before all necessary U.S. ground forces are assembled in the region. Those forces are not expected to be in place before mid-February.
The apparent rejection of that "rolling start" option is just one of the diplomatic, military and domestic developments that could postpone the invasion start beyond the midwinter date favored by Bush's more hawkish advisers.
"The idea that you start with a relatively modest force and flow forces in behind it seems to have been rejected and replaced by the British model of the Falklands" war, when Britain sent a large military force to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina, said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix insisted this week that he needed until at least March to assess Iraq's willingness to disarm peacefully. "We have no such time line on the work we do now," Blix said, when asked about U.S. troop deployments. "I am operating on my own time line."
Concerned by public opinion hostile to a war, U.S. allies, including close Bush friend Tony Blair, the British prime minister, are counseling patience.
Neither Blix nor the U.S. government has made public a "smoking gun" showing Hussein is hiding banned weapons of mass destruction, which may be needed to galvanize world opinion.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan added his voice yesterday to those urging that more time be given to inspections.
"I don't think from where I stand we are at that stage yet," Annan replied when asked whether there should be an invasion even if no illicit weapons were found. "I think the inspectors are just getting up to full speed."
U.S. officials, eager to keep their options open, insist publicly that there never was a timetable for war.
Former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 gulf war, said he believed the pressures on Bush to hold off on invading Iraq were "wisps of smoke in a jar."
"I think there has been a political decision to disarm Iraq that is irrevocable. I don't think there is a decision to do it by force yet," McCaffrey said. But he said he believed Bush would chose that option if Hussein has not given up his illicit weapons by the end of February.
The rising political pressures against a swift invasion are all the more remarkable because they contrast with a rapidly expanding U.S. war machine in and around the Persian Gulf.
"The military track and the political track are really getting out of whack here," said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House expert on Iraq who consults with the Bush administration.
For now, the administration is in "classic muddle-through mode," avoiding a clear decision, Pollack said.
Rumsfeld signed two major deployment orders over the weekend, to dispatch 62,000 more Marines, Army soldiers and Air Force personnel to the region.
With those deployments, the number of American forces in the region is expected to grow to about 150,000 air, ground and naval personnel in the next several weeks. An additional 100,000 are expected in the region by mid- to late February to be ready for a full-scale air and ground assault on Iraq.
Those deployments create a momentum of their own.
Some analysts suggest U.S. war planners must launch an attack before the end of February to conclude operations before the scorching heat of the gulf summer begins. Summer in Kuwait and Iraq begins in late May and lasts through August. Temperatures have been reported as high as 120 degrees.
Senior U.S. military officers in Kuwait dismiss the idea that U.S. forces face an arbitrary deadline imposed by the weather. Many of the troops in Kuwait who are preparing for war and others en route have spent many months training there during the summer or in similar conditions in the California desert.
Then there is the hajj, the annual pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Muslims to the prophet Muhammad's birthplace in Mecca. This year, it ends on Feb. 15, and for a week afterward air corridors in the Middle East will be busy with commercial jets carrying pilgrims homeward.
More than any other factor, public opinion at home and abroad is complicating Bush's military calculations.
A national poll done by Knight Ridder, The Inquirer's parent company, released Sunday found that only about a third of Americans supported a war against Iraq without backing from the United Nations and U.S. allies.
To gain that backing, Bush may need rock-solid proof that Hussein is lying when he says Iraq has no nuclear-, chemical- or biological-weapons programs. So far, no such proof has been made public and, on the surface at least, Iraq has cooperated with weapons inspectors.
Leaders in Turkey, Britain and across the Middle East, while not necessarily opposed to ousting Hussein, have citizens who are.
In the United States, tens of thousands of antiwar protesters from 40 states are due to converge on Washington this weekend.
Contact reporter Warren P. Strobel at 202-383-6033 or firstname.lastname@example.org.