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The U.S. operation to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will take place in the coming months, even before November's Congressional elections, according to high-level sources in the French government following talks with American decision-makers and professionals in Washington.

The French assessment is based, in part, on what National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told new French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin this month. Rice emphasized U.S. President George W. Bush's determination to topple Saddam "soon," according to the French sources.

Frequent media reports about difficulties in deploying American troops and completing preparations for the operation are meant, according to French government experts, as disinformation to achieve tactical surprise with regard to the timing, place and method of the assault. This will partly make up for the lack of strategic surprise given Bush's declared policy and Saddam's preparations to absorb an attack.

Reports and analysis based on official sources in Washington reiterate the assumption that the operation will take place this winter, so that any failure will not reflect badly for the Republicans at the polls. But the French regard that as a strategy to lower Saddam's guard in the coming three months, while Congress is in recess and the election campaign heats up. Paris won't be surprised if the blow comes in the middle of August, while Bush is seen vacationing at his Texas ranch, in the form of a special forces raid backed by the CIA and precision air attacks.

The French officials believe the the chances are good for an American operation to succeed, since it will take far less effort than the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq was expelled from Kuwait. But the officials do have their doubts about the U.S.'s ability to form a government to their liking in Baghdad. That skepticism is derived from both the weak opposition to Saddam inside Iraq and the failure to protect the new Afghan government. The officials said they won't be surprised if Afghani President Hamid Karzai, like his vice president, is assassinated. "And we don't know what will happen then to the gamble the Americans took on Karzai."

In the Foreign and Defense ministries in Paris, officials are more worried about Iranian nuclear ambitions. French experts say that Iran won't forgo its nuclear ambitions, and they expect, at the current rate of development, Tehran will have a bomb by 2008 or 2010, three-to-five years after Israel believes the Iranian nuclear program will reach fruition. But Iran can accelerate its project, with foreign help, especially from North Korea. "The Iranians tell us they're only doing what we did 50 years ago," said one French official, adding, "and what you Israelis did, with a bit of help from us. That may be true, but global politics is not based on absolute justice and equality, and even if Sharon has a bomb, that's nonetheless less worrisome than if [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami has one."

France's traditional reservations about a military operation against Iraq have been blatantly weakened in the weeks since French President Jacques Chirac was re-elected without the need for power sharing with the Left. Bush's military doctrine, which calls for a preemptive strike against countries and entities that might use terror or weapons of mass destruction, is accepted by Paris despite its reticence. "If we know that Libya is going to launch a missile at Marseilles, we won't wait until [Libyan leader Moammar] Gadhafi pushes the button, but why say so ahead of time?" said one strategic planner in the French Foreign Ministry this week.

One of his colleagues added that his government now tilts toward welcoming an American decision to topple Saddam, both because of the general intra-Arab politics and within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the Arab world, the collapse of dictatorial or dynastic regimes and intensification of the democratic process will eventually sweep through countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. France is worried that without an added degree of democracy, the political protests could be channeled into Islamic fundamentalism and result in civil wars, which would send hundreds of thousands of refugees onto the country's southern beaches seeking asylum.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian context, the establishment of a pro-Western government in Baghdad would loosen the stranglehold on Jordan, "which is, in effect, only a buffer-state between Iraq and Israel and is run with the inspiration of the IDF and Mossad," said one French source. Without an Iraq hostile to Israel breathing down Jordan's neck, the Palestinians would have to sober up from their far-reaching illusions and chances would grow for an arrangement that suits the needs of all three sides - Jordan, the Palestinians and Israel. And an end to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's regime is also now acceptable to France's planners, in the spirit of the "change the regime" rule Bush set in place in Kabul and his plans for Baghdad. If it's good for them, why not for Ramallah, say the French officials.

A French source as informed as any about Chirac's closed-door views, told Israel's Ambassador to France, Eli Bar-Navi, that Chirac is disappointed in Arafat, referring to him as "the rug salesman," a euphemism for someone who cannot be trusted.