By Rowan Scarborough

U.S. military planners are now looking at mid-March as a starting date for a war against Iraq, a delay caused by diplomatic snags and difficulties in moving heavy Army divisions.

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The majority of Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps combat units are in the Persian Gulf poised for an attack.
The timing of the war is critical, U.S. officials said, because it is best for troops and machines to fight in the Gulf's 70-degree winter weather than its oppressive desert heat of the summer. The temperatures begin to rise in April.
When war plans were maturing in the summer, planners looked at February as the optimum time to begin military action. But President Bush subsequently decided to take the issue of Iraqi disarmament to the United Nations.
U.S. officials said the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, after a four-year absence, and the need for a debate in the U.N. Security Council, extended the war timeline.
The White House continued to signal this week that Mr. Bush will not let the debate at the United Nations push a war decision into the summer.
"There's not a lot of time left," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, adding that either Turkey agrees to host U.S. ground troops for a northern front or the United States would position them elsewhere. Senior officials have said this month that a war decision is "weeks, not months" away.
The Army, which must move heavy armored forces across the Atlantic, is still several weeks away from being in place to begin a drive toward Baghdad.
The 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas, has shipped its Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles across the Atlantic. But most of its 20,000 soldiers remain in the United States, still unsure of whether they will invade from Turkey in the north, or from some other point.
An Army spokesman said the infantry troops would soon begin boarding planes bound for the region but refused to specify the location.
Army officials privately say they could have moved troops faster this winter had Pentagon civilians acted sooner on deployment proposals.
It is up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to make decisions on deployments.
Although the Bush administration's public stance is that the military can fight anywhere anytime, analysts say a winter campaign will be much easier on troops and equipment, given the moderate temperatures then.
"In the summer, our ability to employ maneuver warfare would be needlessly degraded," said a Marine aviator, who flew more than 30 combat missions in Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf war.
"Soldiers and Marines can't move as fast when the mercury climbs, especially if they are required to wear clothing designed to protect them against chemical or biological weapons. Our weaponry, from vehicles to aircraft, can perform in such conditions but generally function better in cooler temperatures."
John Hillen, an Army cavalry officer in the Gulf war, remembers beginning the land invasion on Feb. 23, 1991, at night in mild weather. He, however, pointed out that soldiers train in the blistering heat of the California desert and are prepared for any weather.
"It's better to do it in the winter because you don't have to deal with the heat, and in military operations you want to deal with as few changing variables as possible," he said.
"But on the other hand, we can operate in the heat and in the desert, which we train for all the time. It's an extra inconvenience and could have a marginal effect on operational effectiveness. But it's not decisive."
More than 130,000 U.S. troops are now in the Gulf region. While Mr. Bush seeks a second U.N. resolution, most air and naval units are in place.
•The Marine Corps has moved more than 50,000 troops to the region, most assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, commanded by Lt. Gen. James Conway. His headquarters are at Camp Commando, a tent city outside Kuwait City.
The 1st Marine Division, the ground element, is based in camps in northern Kuwait along Highway 7.
The 1st Marine Air Wing, the air combat element, has its headquarters at the Al Jaber Air Base.
•The Navy has positioned four carriers near Iraq, with a fifth, the USS Kitty Hawk, due to arrive in the Gulf region before March 1.
"With the arrival of the Kitty Hawk, we will, for all intent and purposes, be in place," said a Pentagon official.
The five carrier battle groups, plus two British submarines in the area, will give the coalition more than 30 ships capable of firing hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles into Iraq.
The Navy may depart from the way it fought in Desert Storm, when it positioned six carriers in the Red Sea and the Gulf region.
This time, it plans to have three in the Gulf: the Kitty Hawk, the USS Constellation and the USS Abraham Lincoln, which features the new F-18 Super Hornet.
It will keep two carriers in the Mediterranean Sea: the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Those battle groups will attack from there, according to the Pentagon official, with planes either flying over Israel and Jordan, or traveling through Turkey to get to Iraq.
These plans are not final, the official said.
•The Air Force has in place combat units that the Pentagon deployed to the Gulf region in recent weeks, according to a spokeswoman.
They include the 1st, 4th, 20th and 49th fighter wings of F-16 and F-15 jets, and the B-1B's 28th bomber wing.
The Pentagon is expected to deploy as many as 16 of its 21 B-2 stealth bombers stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo.
The planes may execute their first bombing runs from Missouri, then go to bases in England or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to get a new set of 16 one-ton satellite-guided bombs.