WASHINGTON - The warnings have been issued, the gauntlet thrown down. Now, after a year of internal divisions and military diversions, the serious planning is under way within the Bush administration for a campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
The administration expects to complete a long-delayed Iraq policy review by the time Vice President Dick Cheney makes his nine-nation Middle East tour next month, so that he can outline U.S. plans to Arab leaders, according to senior U.S. officials.
Any denouement in Iraq is a long way off, officials say. But broad outlines of favored options have begun to emerge. At the heart of administration policy are two strategic decisions, according to officials.
First, the Iraq problem must be solved, not simply managed as it was for the past two U.S. administrations. The philosophy of so-called "containment," or limiting the damage Hussein could do either to the region or at home, is no longer considered enough.
Many analysts, including former Clinton officials, believe it might be dangerous to simply contain Iraq: The regime has enough wiggle room to work on weaponry that would allow it to pull off devastating surprises down the road.
Second, Washington is prepared to push beyond the limitations imposed by international sentiment, Arab public opinion and even the original United Nations resolutions that opened the way for Operation Desert Storm 11 years ago to force Iraq out of oil-rich Kuwait.
Having survived short-lived opposition to the Afghan war, U.S. officials express a new confidence about going up against what is still a strong tide of resistance.
But the debate continues about what to do next. The administration's mind-set and the speed of the war in Afghanistan have opened the way for new thinking about what might work. As policy-makers deliberate options, three basic scenarios are emerging:
The diplomatic route, working through the United Nations to pass new "smart sanctions" and press Hussein's regime to allow the return of inspectors who would look for and dismantle any chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
A military campaign, probably relying heavily on air power and potential defections within the Iraqi military.
A tightening of the political noose around Hussein's government with more coercive actions by neighboring states and the international community.
Policy might well end up with some mix of these approaches. But the common denominator behind each is the threat of some kind of military action should Iraq not change its ways. Despite allied opposition, a major U.S. military effort is no longer out of the question, U.S. officials say.
"There's an evolving consensus that a sizable U.S. military activity will be required," said a well-placed source. Even Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, long the most cautious voice among principals crafting policy on Iraq, is on board.
Robin Wright is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.