(CNSNews.com) - "How long can you let 200,000 U.S. troops sit in the sand?" a reporter asked a Bush spokesman at Tuesday's White House press briefing.
The question followed reports that chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix will need until March at the earliest to present a comprehensive report on whether Iraq is complying with a U.N. mandate to disclose and eliminate his country's weapons of mass destruction.
Blix said his oft-mentioned January 27 report to the United Nations Security Council should be considered nothing more than an interim update on the first 60 days of inspections -- not the end of the monitoring process. The buzz in Washington has long suggested that January 27 marked Saddam's "make-or-break" deadline, after which a war would begin.
The United States in recent weeks has sent more and more troops and support personnel to the Persian Gulf, apparently in anticipation of an attack on Iraq. Weather is believed to be a key consideration in the timing of an assault. The winter months are best, analysts have said, given the fact that U.S. and allied troops will be suited up to guard against bio-chemical attacks.
"Time is running out," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said repeatedly at Tuesday's press briefing.
"From the beginning, the president has made it very clear that the burden is on Saddam Hussein to comply and to disarm. Nothing has changed that," Fleischer said.
"The issue is not how long the inspections will last; the issue is whether Saddam Hussein is finally willing to disarm...and regrettably we have seen no evidence that he has made the strategic choice to disarm, to come into compliance with the United Nations."
Fleischer said President Bush "has not put any specific date on how long he thinks the inspectors should do their job." But a short time later, Fleischer said, "This is a question of not letting Saddam Hussein string the world along forever."
Several reporters questioned whether President Bush is determined to attack Iraq, regardless of what U.N. weapons inspectors do or do not find. If the experts say they need months to find evidence that Iraq is hiding weapons of mass destructions, then "why does the president think he knows better?" one reporter asked.
The president believes Iraq is capable of deceiving and fooling the weapons inspectors, Fleischer responded. The president has seen no proof that Saddam "is complying or willing to disarm," he added.
The inspectors themselves have raised a number of concerns, Fleischer noted. "They have said they don't believe they're getting full cooperation and compliance from Saddam Hussein. They have found problems that they have cited."
Said Fleischer, "The president is looking forward to the January 27th date. He believes that will be an important date."