WASHINGTON -- Many U.S. allies as well as skeptical Americans are struggling to understand why the Bush administration is pressing so urgently for military action against Iraq.
Why war? Why now?
Among reasons given are President Bush's conviction that failing to deal with Saddam Hussein now will lead to far greater dangers in the future. These include Iraq's possible use of weapons of mass destruction and an increased likelihood such weapons would fall -- or be delivered -- into the hands of terrorists.
With more than 150,000 U.S. troops already in the Persian Gulf region and more on the way, administration officials also are concerned that delay of the all-but-inevitable will claim a toll in terms of cost, troop morale and increased anti-Americanism.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans support attacking Iraq but would prefer that key allies help. At the same time, a U.S. rift with NATO and U.N partners over how to deal with Baghdad is widening.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld summarized the administration's case by describing a 21st century world marked by an increasing number of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and technologies for delivering them.
"They are available and they are being developed in terrorist states, and the terrorist states have relationships with terrorist networks," Rumsfeld said. "The threat that poses is of such considerably greater lethality than anything that has been experienced in the earlier periods."
Bush and his advisers cite the risk of a Sept. 11-style attack -- but with weapons of mass destruction.
"Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons and other plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein," Bush said in his State of the Union address. "It would take just one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
Case for haste
Why not give the weapons inspectors more time? Here are some factors underlying the administration's case for haste:
Inspections: The administration contends chances are slim that U.N. inspectors will ever find much in a country the size of California as long as Saddam Hussein is trying to evade them. "We're not playing hide-and-seek," Bush asserted. Secretary of State Colin Powell used intercepted phone conversations and satellite photos to show the U.N. Security Council what he said was evidence of pre-inspection cleanups and furtive movement of weapons equipment from place to place.
Terrorism: At the core of the administration's case is the contention that Saddam will provide lethal weapons to terror groups for use against American targets. Seizing on a new audiotape purportedly of Osama bin Laden urging Iraqis to attack Americans, Powell told lawmakers it shows al-Qaida's leader in a "partnership with Iraq."
While such claims are greeted skeptically abroad, they may help Bush sell his case at home. For many Americans, protecting the nation against terrorists is a more potent argument for going to war with Iraq than preserving stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
Oil: While the administration insists oil is not a major factor, the significance is apparent to everybody. Iraq controls a substantial amount of the world's oil resources, with reserves second only to those of Saudi Arabia.
U.S. troops: They can't be left in the Persian Gulf indefinitely. A countdown appears under way that may be hard to stop. In addition, military planners would prefer to fight before the onslaught of summer desert heats.
Allies: Bush promises a "coalition of the willing" if needed, but its makeup is uncertain. "The prospects of quick success are greater if we involve the international community and the risks are greater if this is essentially a U.S.-British coalition," said Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton's national security adviser.
Administration officials argue others will join. Michele Flournoy, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees. "The closer we get to the time, the larger the coalition will grow. A lot of countries will decide that their long-term foreign policy interests are to side with the United States," she said.
Middle East dynamics: Hostile at first, many Gulf nations are coming to accept a U.S.-led strike as inevitable, with some even offering bases. But they would prefer to see it done quickly and cleanly. The administration sees this as a good window, particularly since there's a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
North Korea: The administration would like to wrap up Iraq as soon as possible so it can give more attention to North Korea, whose nuclear weapons and long-range missiles pose what may be a more dangerous threat than Iraq. The Pentagon says it can fight two major battles at once, but why test that concept?
Completing the job: Bush denies there's anything personal, but many conservatives and military analysts believe his father erred in ending the 1991 Persian Gulf War short of ousting Saddam. The younger Bush now has a chance to finish the job.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, asked if he could justify the urgency for war preparations, sought to turn the question around. "Is the message of the world to allow Saddam Hussein to continue to drag his feet as he builds up his weapons of mass destruction for the possibility of using them? That's a chance we don't want to take."
Key developments concerning Iraq on Thursday
President Bush urged skeptical allies to "show backbone and courage" and stand up to Saddam Hussein.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the American people should be "prepared for a fairly long-term commitment" in Iraq after a possible war. "I would hope that it would be a short conflict and that it would be directed at the leadership, not the society," he told Congress.
NATO canceled an emergency meeting to discuss its bitter split over Iraq after Germany insisted any breakthrough would have to wait until Friday's U.N. Security Council meeting. German Defense Minister Peter Struck suggested his country would be prepared to drop its opposition to a plan for NATO to help defend Turkey in case of war with Iraq.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been invited to attend Monday's emergency European Union summit on Iraq, but 13 prospective EU members -- many of which back Washington's hardline approach -- will not be allowed in.
The United States demanded that the 66-nation Conference on Disarmament reject plans for Iraq to take over the chairmanship of the body, the world's main forum for negotiating arms reduction treaties.