America - Andrew Stephen on Washington hawks and Iraq

US intelligence firmly suggests that there is no link between al-Qaeda and Iraq, but the hawks, igno

The scoop from here this week: the hawks in the Bush administration are pushing for an assault on Iraq much sooner than everybody thinks. The internecine warfare that I touched upon last week is now raging on military, political and diplomatic fronts - with Iraq emerging as the convenient catalyst on which to vent all the frustrations and rivalries felt so keenly in Washington since 11 September, but which hardly a soul has dared to voice openly.

General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in the Persian Gulf, insists that the only feasible way of successfully invading Iraq is to pour in at least a quarter of a million US ground troops in an operation that would end up being every bit as big as the Gulf war in 1990-91, which involved 550,000 US troops. Franks is also saying that such an operation against Saddam Hussein should be delayed until spring next year.

But Franks is being widely rubbished. His advice puts him at odds with his political masters at the Pentagon. Hawks such as Donald Rumsfeld and, in particular, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz have grown increasingly to believe in American omnipotence and the inevitability of bloodless American military victories whenever and wherever they are required. Whereas Franks says that at least four divisions of land, sea and air forces would be required to try to topple Saddam, the likes of Wolfowitz argue that, as soon as high-precision bombing resources are replenished, the bombing of Baghdad must begin without delay. Nearly 10,000 US troops, which the hawks see as possible back-up troops to air strikes, are already in Kuwait, and USAF C-130 aircraft have been commuting in and out of that country.

Politically, Colin Powell continues to be squeezed by ruthless colleagues lusting for more revenge on someone, anyone, for 11 September. To queer his pitch, media reports continue to say that Iraq was somehow behind al-Qaeda and its atrocities, but they are mere propaganda - or, put more kindly, wishful thinking by the likes of Wolfowitz. Intelligence now firmly suggests, in fact, that there is no link between al-Qaeda and Iraq: a notion that Americans find difficult to get their minds around, believing that "any guy wearing a diaper on his head" (to quote one learned Republican congressman) has to be an al-Qaeda terrorist bent on destroying the US.

To distinguish between the secular thuggishness of Saddam Hussein and the pseudo-religious puritanism of al-Qaeda is a task too refined for a country so introverted and isolationist as 21st-century America. Having "taken Afghanistan" (or, more accurately, some of what little there was to take), most Americans now assume that "taking Iraq" and toppling Saddam would be another piece of cake; there is little understanding that, although much of the infrastructure of Iraq may be frayed, Baghdad itself is a relatively sophisticated city. And Powell's protests - that UN inspectors may yet be able to resume the search for weapons of mass destruction that they abandoned in 1998 - have fallen on deaf ears with his colleagues.

Diplomatically, meanwhile, I suspect Tony Blair has still not realised the pit into which his curious mixture of slippery opportunism and Boy Scout zealotry is in danger of landing Britain (am I right in thinking that Brits are finally beginning to rumble him, though?). The simplism of the Bush administration (minus Powell and perhaps a couple of others) holds that it needs no military allies other than those providing necessary geographic staging posts. So the view of Wolfowitz et al is that it can do very nicely without those Europeans, thank you very much. If the Brits want to come along for the ride, fine. Otherwise, the only other western ally that would be welcome would be Australia, whose right-wing government gels nicely with the Bush administration.

We would be left with the poor Turks, forced to co-operate fully with the US - American pressure on them has already begun, with their agreement last Monday that they will assume command of the international security force in Kabul this summer. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman would all be pressed into service, too. Kuwait would be the only willing regional ally. Saudi Arabia? They can go to hell (a visit by Crown Prince Abdullah to Bush's home in Texas a couple of weeks ago did not go well, with Abdullah offering to show Bush two videos of Israeli violence on the West Bank). Iran? Egypt? Europe? Who needs 'em?

All of which is scaring the wits out of Powell and calmer minds within the State Department and US military. Powell, like Franks, is a man who thinks with military logic, rather than emotional bluster. He can see only too well the increasing likelihood of Saddam loosing off a few Scuds at Tel Aviv again, with swift nuclear retaliation from a Sharon-led Israel. Hardly bears thinking about.