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US Changes Tone on Gulf As Talk of War Surfaces

New rhetoric seems partly designed to prepare Americans for reality of combat

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IN Washington, the talk is no longer of Persian Gulf ``options,'' but of war. A sober mood has settled over the capital as the Bush administration noticeably toughens its rhetoric. The new White House line seems at least partly designed to prepare the American people for the reality of combat, with all its destruction and casualties. Gradually, the implications of ``preemptive strike'' are becoming all too clear.

No indicators point to imminent hostilities. Conversely, no change in Iraq's behavior seems forthcoming, and President Bush has redoubled his efforts to convince Saddam Hussein that unless he backs off there will be fighting.

The beleaguered US Embassy in Kuwait has long been considered a potential flashpoint, and on Wednesday Bush told reporters to ``just wait and see'' what the White House would do about the trapped diplomats. But in recent days administration officials have been at pains to emphasize they are not looking for an excuse to attack - because the invasion of Kuwait was provocation enough.

``You don't need any pretext. You just do what's right,'' Bush said.

Iraq's ambassador to the US Wednesday urged a negotiated settlement, saying Baghdad wanted to avoid bloodshed. But Iraqi Information Minister Latif Nassif Jassim told a Baghdad news conference there were signs the US is about to make a decision concerning war and that the Army and Popular Army had been put on maximum alert.

Administration officials aren't predicting armed confrontation. Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker both minced fewer words this week, however, in what seemed a coordinated campaign to change the tone of the US approach to the crisis. (Britain says war is likely, Page 3.)

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