WASHINGTON -- Angered by President Saddam Hussein's response to U.S. ultimatums and his subsequent defiance of the United Nations, President Bush has decided to launch a military strike soon against Iraq, U.S. and allied officials said yesterday.
Senior U.S. officials said it was conceivable that Baghdad could stay Mr. Bush's hand with immediate and broad compliance with United Nations demands. But they said the administration assumed this would not happen and that air attacks would take place at the earliest opportunity.
Saying that a decision to attack had been made "in principle," a Pentagon official added, "It's just a matter of when to pull the trigger."
The Los Angeles Times and Knight-Ridder News Service reported that an air strike could occur as early as today.
The Los Angeles Times said there also were indications that the strikes could continue for up to several days, involving repeated attacks on missile batteries and airfields and possibly military headquarters facilities in Baghdad. British and French planes would join U.S. aircraft, according to the scenario.
Pentagon officials said the allied operation would be designed not as ahit-and-run punitive strike, but as a sustained operation intended to "bloody the nose" of Mr. Hussein and his military, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Administration officials said Mr. Bush and his top aides discussed military action in a White House meeting Monday. There, they reviewed Baghdad's response to Washington's demands that it remove anti-aircraft missiles from southern Iraq and Mr. Hussein's subsequent violations of U.N. restrictions. Baghdad's defiant posture had fortified Washington's belief that force was necessary, the officials said.
"They have conferred and in principle have decided something must be done," the Pentagon official said.
After Iraqi forces entered contested territory on the Kuwait-Iraq border yesterday for the third time, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, said there would be no further warnings to Mr. Hussein.
Administration officials refused to say whether Mr. Bush had already given a specific order to attack, leaving the timing up to the military, or whether he was withholding that order to await Iraq's response.
The officials disclosed the plans for military action as the Iraqi representative to the United Nations delivered a letter to the president of the Security Council, saying Baghdad wanted to try to resolve the outstanding differences.
"The letter mainly stressed the Iraqi wish to keep talking with the Council and having a constructive dialogue to try to resolve the outstanding problems," said the representative, Nizar Hamdoon.
The administration had no immediate response to the Iraqi letter. But a senior administration official, who confirmed that Washington is actively planning an air strike, suggested that nothing less than a major turnabout in Baghdad's behavior would prevent an attack.
In the last two weeks there have been a string of Iraqi provocations: jet fighter flights in the southern zone where the allies have banned such flights, deployment of anti-aircraft-missile batteries in similar zones in northern and southern Iraq, refusal to allow U.N. inspectors to fly to Iraq in U.N. planes, and armed incursions to retrieve weapons from territory that the United Nations had given to Kuwait.
Baghdad maintains that the incursions have been solely to reclaim equipment taken from Iraq during the Persian Gulf war and were permitted by U.N. policy, which allows the Iraqis until Jan. 15 to retrieve their confiscated property.
But the Security Council said Monday that Iraq had not obtained the necessary permit to secure the goods and was in violation of U.N. guidelines.
"What is immediately egregious is the missile deployments and other violations," said the senior administration official, who insisted on anonymity. "We made clear to the Iraqis there won't be any further warnings." United States and allied officials said Britain and France were ready to take part in an attack should military action be necessary. British and French planes based in Saudi Arabia have joined U.S. aircraft in patrolling the southern flight-exclusion zone.
A senior allied official said the allies had lost patience with Mr. Hussein in recent days. The Iraqi, he said, "has really pushed his luck too far."
Pentagon officials said that additional aircraft were not being sent to the Persian Gulf and that there were more than enough planes there to carry out any attack.
A Pentagon official declined to specify what targets would be hit.
Military experts outside government have speculated that the targets could include airfields, communications sites, sites that are though to house chemical weapons and other installations involved with Iraq's program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Iraq has reconstructed much of its air defense system and it is also a likely target for an allied attack.
At the United Nations yesterday, Mr. Hamdoon, the Iraqi representative, said Baghdad was worried about a possible attack, saying, "We and lots of others are concerned about these possibilities."
But he said the letter that he presented to the president of the Security Council, Yoshio Hatano of Japan, did not contain any specific proposals for defusing the crisis.
"I think you can read in the letter that there is an Iraqi wish to try to defuse the crisis by discussing the outstanding issues and try to find resolutions," Mr. Hamdoon said. The letter was signed by Foreign Minister Mohammed Sahhaf. But Mr. Hatano said Mr. Hamdoon did not indicate that Iraq was prepared to comply with U.N. restrictions.