War will break out in the Persian Gulf in the first half of January. Casualties will be very heavy, but the fighting will be finished by the end of February, and Saddam Hussein will be out of a job.

I don't like this prediction. I'd like nothing better than to be wrong - really. But this is what I think will happen. It's also what a lot of other people are beginning to think, too.You don't have to look very hard to know that war fever is building. Mainly, this is because of a carefully orchestrated and shrewdly nuanced series of speeches by President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. One recent example is Bush saying recently that economic sanctions against Iraq aren't working so well and that he's "had it" with the way American hostages are being treated in Iraq and Kuwait.

Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, was asked about all this war talk and said it was designed "to prepare the American people for any eventuality. If we do have to take dramatic action, we want them to know why." That may be so, but it could also mean that the administration has already come to the conclusion that war with Iraq is inevitable.

Diplomacy and economic sanctions don't seem to be working. Bush said as much the other day. Saddam isn't convinced yet that Bush and the rest of those lined up against him really mean business. Apparently, he still thinks that Washington and its allies will get tired of this whole mess and eventually go along with some compromise that lets him keep some of his winnings.

Maybe Saddam is right. Maybe he's smarter than all of us. More likely, he's got bad advisers who misread all the confusing signals coming out of Washington these days. Whatever the reason, he doesn't seem to be budging from his determination to hold on to every inch of Kuwaiti territory his army captured in August.

As for the more than 240,000 American soldiers now deployed in the gulf region, they don't seem to be budging either. Neither is Bush, who continues to demand a full and unconditional Iraqi withdrawal.

So unless any of this changes drastically - and that doesn't look likely for now - war looks all but inevitable.

But why the first half of January?

First, because when the attack order comes down, America's generals want to be able to flatten the Iraqis as quickly as possible. They really want an extra 100,000 or so troops as an insurance policy. Getting them and their equipment to the region will take a bit of time.

Second, Bush has tentatively scheduled a visit to Europe in mid-November and American forces in Saudi Arabia around Thanksgiving. It's unlikely he'll be ordering his forces to attack when he's out of Washington. There's an outside chance that the plans for these overseas trips are an elaborate smoke-screen to fool everybody, but my hunch is that they aren't. It's also unlikely the president will launch an attack as we swing into mid-December and Christmas approaches. That would be bad politics.

But look out after the holidays when everything should be in place, including the extra troops and their equipment.

To finish the fighting in four or five weeks, the United States and its allies will have to go in massively and all at once - none of the gradual escalation business like Vietnam. This is the way all of Bush's generals want it done - fast and hard - and the president seems to be in complete agreement. That kind of warfare builds up casualty figures real fast, especially in desert terrain like the gulf region where everything is out in the open.

So those are the predictions. They represent what the situation looks like in early November. Let's hope the situation changes over the coming weeks. We'll all be a lot better off if I'm wrong.