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U.S. may need Gulf War II - but fight to win, or we'll lose

If Saddam Hussein does not cave in to the sound of sabres rattling, the United States has little choice but to make good its military threats. What would Persian Gulf War II be like?

Phase I would be an air attack heavier than the missile pinpricks that encouraged Saddam to challenge U.N. inspections. The word picked up at this year's World Economic Forum is that bombers would hit air defenses, military command and control facilities, perhaps a sampling of biowar sites. The mission would be to render Iraq unable to put anything in the air.Saddam's counterattack would be psychological: to display the bloodied bodies of children on CNN (even if he has to stage explosions at hospitals himself), thereby to turn U.S. opinion against further bombing. Appeals to the Arab street would encourage demonstrations and terrorist attacks.

Phase II would be a bombing pause. Russian and French envoys to Baghdad would say the mad Americans cannot be restrained unless some compromise is reached. Clinton would maintain his resolve to win unconditional inspection. His bottom line: unrestricted inspections, often headed by American experts.

If that test of Saddam's submission was finessed by attempts to protract negotiations, Phase III would begin: sustained bombing of all suspected weaponry sites, including palaces occupied by civilians used as hostages. Industrial and oil facilities would be taken out as in Persian Gulf War I.

This time Saddam would not only play on our revulsion at the pictures of innocents' bloodshed, but he might escalate the war, aiming Iraqi missiles with poison gas at Israel and posing as a holy warrior.

This time, with no Arab cooperation to lose, the United States said it would not appeal to Israelis for restraint. Retaliatory commando raids might be an early option; if Saddam turned totally suicidal and tried germ warfare, he would invite a nuclear response.

But if Saddam chose televised victimhood, and was not overthrown in a coup by officers unhappy at Republican Guard losses, what then? He would be wounded, his people impoverished, but Iraq would remain triumphantly unoccupied with Saddam in command - building his weapons of mass destruction and buying the missiles to deliver them.

For us, to fail to win would be to lose. If the United States went to war and stopped short of victory, it would be beaten. The measure of victory in Persian Gulf War II: trying Saddam as a war criminal and showing Iraqis how to hold elections. That means we should be prepared to go to Phase IV: invasion.

If it comes to that, are we ready? No; the ground troops are not in place, and the will to send ground troops is not yet in the Clinton administration.

Because Saddam knows Clinton is unprepared to go all the way to land war, he is willing to absorb aerial punishment until we give up. Only if we show our readiness to go all the way might we avoid the need to do so.

Because Clinton feels the need to act under a multilateral cloak, he cannot be expected to ask Congress for an old-fashioned declaration of war. However, since limited war is what he proposes to wage - with casualties to be expected - he must ask Congress, where the war power still resides, for an enabling resolution.

He'd get it and then some. Speaker Newt Gingrich made a brilliant speech in Davos on Sunday urging the final disposition of Saddam. Congress should follow his lead and direct the president to take all air, sea and land action to conclusively remove the threat that this dictator will acquire weapons of mass destruction.

A week's serious Senate Foreign Relations debate would increase pressure on Saddam while preparing Americans for sacrifices. Dissenters could take their stand and - should the majority support the use of all necessary force to remove Saddam - the president would receive the constitutional mandate he needs for a fight to the finish.

I ran into Hillary Clinton at the Sara Lee reception Sunday night. Though our brief chat was socially privileged, she told me that what we needed was not just allies to express concern but to make commitments. She's right.

If her husband is willing to tell the world what is at stake, and how long the road may be, he will find allies in Congress, in public opinion and in key capitals to join him in a commitment to save millions of lives threatened by this generation's Hitler.

New York Times News Service