The drumbeat of war may be slowing.
After weeks of mounting expectations that an invasion is imminent, the United States and many of the key players in the showdown with Iraq indicated Thursday that U.N. weapons inspections will run well beyond the Jan. 27 due date for the first formal report to the world body on Saddam Hussein's cooperation.
Barring solid discoveries or new evidence about Iraq's weapons programs, widespread assumptions about an American-led military operation beginning in early February may also be off, according to U.S., European and U.N. officials.
"It's wrong to assume anything has to happen in January or February. We're not in this to call a quick war, so don't assume any timetable," a senior State Department official said Thursday on condition of anonymity. "We have to exhaust the U.N. process to get people to come through with military and other support."
At the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer stressed Thursday that President Bush has not imposed a time frame for the process.
"The president has said that he wants the inspectors to be able to do their jobs, to continue their efforts, and that's what we support," Fleischer told reporters.
The flurry of signals from the Bush administration is in part to "puncture the bubble" of speculation about U.S. intentions amid a rapidly accelerating deployment of American troops near Iraq, the State Department official said.
But it also reflects some of the complex realities of the process -- and reasons for caution.
Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix is likely to ask for more time Jan. 27 if the U.N. teams have not yet found evidence -- the so-called smoking gun -- of any nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or ballistic missiles in Baghdad's arsenal. With inspections still in an early phase, the United States would be hard-pressed not to agree.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been the strongest U.S. ally, said Thursday that the inspections are only "in the middle" of a process and that Jan. 27 should not be seen as any kind of deadline for a decision about war.
"We're asking [the inspectors] to step up the intensity of what they're doing. But they've got to do it professionally, and they need time," Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, told reporters after Blix briefed the Security Council on Thursday. "Jan. 27 will be another in a series of reports and probably not the last."
"There's no point in going this far and then rushing into a war when you don't have the widest possible public support. If the United States didn't do anything when Iraq made its flawed [weapons] declaration, why do it when Blix asks for more time?" said a diplomat from a U.N. Security Council member nation.
"The U.S. has to give the U.N. the space it needs," the diplomat said.
The United States is also still in the throes of trying to build an international coalition for action, with support from critical players such as Turkey proving to be more difficult and costlier to secure than expected. The size and type of allied support in a coalition may also depend on the latitude Washington grants the inspectors -- and this even applies to the role Britain might play in any war, according to U.S. and British officials.
"Blair is very vulnerable on this issue. He's been an overachiever for the United States up to now. But he has a price too. He needs certain things, including giving the U.N. a real opportunity to prove Iraq still has weapons, in order to face the political backlash, particularly within his own party," said a well-placed official who requested anonymity.
Washington would also like to have enough evidence to avoid another major round of diplomacy to convince the world of the need to act, particularly the other permanent members of the Security Council -- Russia, France, China and Britain. And Russia and France called Thursday for what amounts to open-ended inspections.
"There is no reason to give a time limit," France's U.N. ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, said after the Blix briefing.
But Washington and London vehemently denied a British media report that Blair's government had asked the United States to delay any intervention for several months, possibly until autumn.
Third, key U.S. officials are concerned that Hussein might try to preempt or manipulate U.S. military plans if an air war should be launched before all ground troops and support materiel are positioned.
"Once a military action starts, there's a real danger that Saddam will lash out at his own population -- the Kurds or the Shiites -- or take other actions that will force us to change our own plans if we don't have everyone in place," the well-placed official said.
Military planners are particularly concerned about a scenario that might result in a strike by the Iraqi president in the north or south, in turn triggering an internal exodus by millions to the borders and a humanitarian crisis, as happened after Hussein ordered troops into both regions after simultaneous uprisings against him immediately after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Bush administration must also deal with the fact that a growing number of players want to pursue alternatives to war, including allowing time for the military buildup to galvanize Iraq's armed forces into ousting Hussein or for pressuring him to surrender power.
"There's a new dynamic among a number of countries that are very interested in finding ways to get Saddam to depart the scene some other way -- either through a coup or exile," the well-placed source said.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, backed by conservative Gulf states, is reportedly leading behind-the-scenes discussions in the Arab world. He may try to set up a meeting with Iraqi officials, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The tentative signs of slippage on a timeline for war, however, do not mean any diminished intent by the Bush administration.
"The problem with guns that are hidden is you can't see their smoke," Fleischer told reporters. "We know for a fact that there are weapons there."
Said a second State Department official, "Whatever the talk and whatever the timing, it still feels as if the train has left the station."