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War with Iraq? Let's check the schedule

Everyone's got the calendar out, trying to schedule a manageable little war with Iraq. There are the Islamic holy days to consider, the cycles of the moon, the president's trip to Africa and even parents' weekend at Stanford University, where a certain first daughter goes to school.

The guessing game has extended to whether the Stanford parents' weekend and the haj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, are factors as consequential for scheduling warfare as whether President Saddam Hussein of Iraq agrees to "full and unfettered access" to suspected weapons sites by U.N. inspectors, which is the Clinton administration's bottom line for a settlement.In conflicts like this, care for the sensitivities of one's allies can be more important than the urgency of any threat.

It is one matter if war is forced on a country by invasion or self-defense. But what the United States and Britain are contemplating is a limited military strike in pursuit of a political objective, and the intricacies of the Muslim religious calendar are as important as the dates for moonless nights, long a favorite of military planners.

In the end, a political judgment will have to be made about when diplomatic efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis finally have run their course. That is not likely for at least a week or so.

There is an even stronger hint in President Clinton's travel schedule, since presidents do not usually start wars when they are away from Washington. The Clintons are scheduled to go to Stanford for parents' weekend Feb. 25 through March 1, though the trip is not yet officially confirmed.

So it is not clear that military action can come in this month's moonless window, and it is fairly obvious that it will not come in the next. The reason? Clinton is scheduled to leave on a five-country African tour on March 22, returning on April 2.

So does that leave a window for war for the four weeks from Feb. 23 through March 20?

Developments in the Iraq crisis:

- Iraq welcomed a U.N. team mapping presidential compounds Monday, but warned that its citizens would defend the symbols of Iraqi sovereignty with their lives.

U.N. surveyors resumed work early Monday, outlining the eight sites that Saddam has declared off limits to U.N. inspectors who are trying to verify that all weapons of mass destruction have been destroyed.

- Sen. John McCain said it's time for Clinton to set a deadline for Saddam to back down or face U.S. military might. Other U.S. lawmakers insisted Sunday the president not act without a vote of support from Congress, which is on vacation this week.

"The president's got to set a deadline, and Saddam Hussein has to understand it," said McCain, R-Ariz., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

- Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said Monday an attack on any Iraqi biological or chemical weapons site could produce unintended fallout on neighboring countries.

"I am no military expert and it is difficult to say if Iraq has many supplies of biological and chemical weapons, but as our defense minister said during the (Moscow) visit of U.S. Defense Secretary (William) Cohen, if there are such weapons, a strike would significantly affect neighboring countries," he told reporters in Athens.

- The Vatican said Monday that Pope John Paul was "deeply concerned" over the crisis in Iraq and that the pontiff wanted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to go to Baghad on a peace mission.

A statement said the pope had relayed his concern over the weekend through the Vatican's permanent observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino.