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ROLL THE TANKS, BUSH AIDES TELL SENATE PANEL

Forget the embargo, roll the tanks.

Why wait? Unless Saddam Hussein blinks, the guns will roar before spring.

Congress? Who needs it? Unless it backs the war, it's out of the game.

Those ready-to-rumble messages from Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, erase doubts that the Bush administration is edging inexorably toward a February or March war in the Arabian desert.

What about the sanctions George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker engineered to shake Saddam's grip on Kuwait? Now, after four months, they're shrugged off as useless.

"Given the nature of the regime, given Saddam Hussein's brutality to his own people. . .he can ride them out," said Cheney.

"But if we go to war, we'll never know whether the sanctions would have worked, would we?" bristled Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga.

"It's not clear time is on our side," said Cheney. "Better to deal with him now than in five or 10 years when. . .Saddam Hussein has an even better armed superpower."

The appearance of Cheney and Powell on Capitol Hill -- a counter to last week's counsel from ex-Pentagon chiefs for "patience" -- was part of a Bush orchestration to prepare Saddam and the U.S. public for imminent combat.

The blitz started Nov. 8 when Bush, at Powell's urging for "maximum force," built U.S. troops in the gulf to 400,000. Then Baker maneuvered the United Nations into a Jan. 15 deadline for Saddam. When Bush announced in Friday's TV session he'd send Baker eyeball-to-eyeball with Saddam, it sounded like a last fling of the dice.

"This is a Chicken Little approach," flared Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio. "The sky is falling and the only option is war."

But Powell and Cheney were aloof to suggestions that Congress has any clout to slow the rush to arms.

"Are you prepared to tell the American people he (Bush) alone can bring us into war?" fired Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

"I do not believe the president requires any additional authority from Congress. . . ," Cheney said flatly.

When Democrats like Al Gore, Robert Byrd and Alan Dixon compared an Iraqi war to the Vietnam tragedy, their critiques were as useless as BB pellets against a battleship hull. Nor was the Bush team impressed by a standing ovation House Democrats gave Speaker Tom Foley on his ultimatum that Bush must come to Congress before his desert firefight.

Will such Lone Ranger obstinacy, if casualties mount, turn this into a Bush or Republican war?

What you sense is resignation on the Hill and in the country. The latest ABC News-Washington Post poll shows 75 percent of Americans feel a gulf war is inevitable.

The new call for National Guard and Reserves, pushing their number to 188,000, the biggest deployment since the 1961 Berlin crisis, tightens war nerves. A draft would spread sacrifices more fairly -- but the last thing Bush wants is Vietnam-era campus riots.

Sure, like military chiefs before them, Powell and Cheney talk of quick victory. Indeed, they now soft-pedal the goal of smashing Iraq and Saddam to rubble.

"Removing Saddam from Kuwait would be a success," said Cheney.

But when Cheney and Powell scoff at the Iraq embargo as impotent, it leaves questions: Why give it up after 16 weeks? Did the Bush team rig sanctions as a public relations fig leaf for war?

"I wish," Nunn said later, "they would do as good a job analyzing the cost of war as they do on sanctions."

But Nunn's voice was overwhelmed. The war bugles are blowing.

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