Target: Saddam

By Wolf Blitzer
CNN Wolf Blitzer Reports

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It didn't take very long for the fireworks to begin once Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden dropped the gavel. Former United Nations weapons inspector Richard Butler offered some alarming testimony. Specifically, he said the Iraqis might be very close to developing a crude nuclear device. He cited a study two years ago by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Iraqis -- in the absence of international inspections -- could build such a device within "about two years." If accurate, that would be right about now. There have been no inspections in Iraq for almost four years.

Butler also said that the Iraqis had been only about six months away from building a nuclear bomb in August 1990 when they invaded Kuwait, which, in turn, set the stage for Operation Desert Shield and then Operation Desert Storm. The Persian Gulf War and the weapons inspections which followed clearly set back that Iraqi program. The 1981 Israeli airstrike against Iraq's Osirak reactor had also set back Iraq's nuclear ambitions.

President Bush has not yet signed off on any military plan designed to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. But if he approves military action, the ensuing war could be very difficult. That, at least, is the assessment of Anthony Cordesman, a respected analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. During his testimony, he rejected arguments made by other analysts, including former arms control director Ken Adelman, that a new war against Iraq would be "a cakewalk."

"Only fools would bet the lives of other men's sons and daughters on their own arrogance and calls this force a cakewalk or a speed bump or something that you can dismiss," Cordesman said. "I see every reason for the reservation of the American military and the Joint Chiefs and I think efforts to dismiss the military capabilities of Iraq are dangerous and irresponsible."

Still, there emerged a near consensus among the senators and the various witnesses brought before the panel that Saddam Hussein must be removed -- one way or another. There was fear that the clock is ticking. "If there is an inner meaning to what we know, it is this," said Butler. "It is one of life's great principles, I submit, if you defer, put off to another day the solution to a serious problem it will only be harder and costlier in the end."

Sen. Biden put it this way: "Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is one of those clear dangers even if the right response is not so clear. One thing is clear: These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam or Saddam must be dislodged from power."

The "national dialogue" on Iraq has begun.