U.S. military forces are close to being ready to take military action against Saddam Hussein if the president calls on them, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday.
"We're in good shape," Mr. Wolfowitz said of military preparations in an interview with reporters after a speech at a conference sponsored by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture.
"We're making preparations every day," he said. "I don't want to start saying exactly when we're at peak readiness, but it would be a terrible mistake for anyone to underestimate our ability to act if needed."
The deputy defense secretary also said that, regardless of U.N. efforts to conduct disarmament inspections in Iraq, the Bush administration is ready to use force, if necessary, to prevent the Iraqi dictator from sharing chemical, biological or nuclear weapons with terrorists.
"I think the president has made it clear [that] if we can get the support of the United Nations, that's great, and if we can't get it, we're not going to have our hands tied."
Mr. Wolfowitz said he did not know when Saddam would violate the latest U.N. resolution demanding that he fully cooperate with weapons inspectors, but "he's been doing it for 11 years."
Asked about a recent report in The Washington Times that Iraq is hiding about 7,000 liters of deadly anthrax biological weapons, Mr. Wolfowitz said, "I have no doubt he has anthrax."
When also asked whether chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix would forcefully carry out the arms inspections in Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz said, "I guess we'll have to see." Some critics within the administration have said that Mr. Blix, an international lawyer, would not be forceful enough in demanding that Baghdad give up its weapons of mass destruction.
Regarding recent U.S. government warnings of terrorist attacks, Mr. Wolfowitz said, "We've been concerned for a year." The warnings followed the release of an audiotape believed to be the voice of bin Laden threatening attacks on the United States and its allies if the United States invades Iraq.
"The public shouldn't expect that we're going to get precise warnings of things," Mr. Wolfowitz said, "and we've had a lot of warnings of a lot of things. Fortunately, most of them have not come true. We take them all seriously. When bin Laden makes a tape like that, you have to take it seriously."
He said that the war on terrorism will be a protracted battle.
"The real point is this is going to be a long war," Mr. Wolfowitz said. "So, people should really be discouraged from the idea that there is a quick and easy solution. We are in danger."
Retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs, a military analyst, said during the conference that the U.S. military is in the first phase of preparations for a conflict against Iraq and that future phases will involve the call up of military reservists.
Military personnel involved in critical functions, such as crew members who fly B-52 bombers, have had their retirement plans canceled, Col. Jacobs said. U.S. military forces would also need 30 to 60 days to build up forces near Iraq before an attack, he said.
Defense sources said U.S. military forces are prepared to conduct operations against Saddam's regime on short notice and have large stockpiles of weapons near Iraq.
Mr. Wolfowitz said the ideological front is a vital component in winning the war on terrorism.
"I do believe that regime change in Afghanistan helped us, and I think regime change in Iraq would help us even more," he said. "I think some of our strongest allies in the Muslim world are the people who are enslaved by the regimes that hate us so that there is not a simple separation between the ideological struggle and the rest of it."
He also said that disarming Saddam, either by force or through the United Nations, would not distract from the war on terrorism.