The countdown is nearly over. If U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan does not obtain Baghdad's complete surrender on allowing arms inspections - highly unlikely - we are going to try to bomb Saddam Hussein into submission.

Correction. Make that the Iraqi people.Saddam will be quite safe, deep in some underground bunker, surrounded by bodyguards, food tasters and loyalists of his Takriti clan while above ground his hapless subjects reap the consequences of their leader's intransigence.

Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned Congress to be prepared for a "devastating" aerial bombardment that will kill at least 1,500 Iraqi civilians and "a handful" of American pilots.

The casualties will be even higher if Saddam uses his people as human shields - as he has done in the past - around key military installations, radar sites and intelligence headquarters that might be targeted by U.S. warplanes.

And the consequences will be horrific of a bomb hits one of his stockpiles of chemical or biological agents and sends clouds of anthrax, botulinum or some other deadly toxin wafting over Baghdad.

Shelton told senators the military would "err by eliminating sites from target lists" rather than endanger the lives of noncombatants. But he reminded them that "war is a dirty business."

Remember the bombing of the Al Firdos bunker in the 1991 gulf war? The CIA correctly identified it as an intelligence compound, but it was occupied by families with women and children. The 204 bodies pulled from the rubble before CNN cameras gave us such a black eye it may have contributed to the disastrous decision to stop the war before Saddam was removed from power.

This time there is no thought of getting rid of Saddam. The object of a sustained air campaign, in the words of President Clinton, is to "seriously diminish the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. We want to seriously reduce his capacity to threaten his neighbors."

But can it be done with air power alone? And will it matter if Sadd-am survives to challenge us again?

There is no doubt, as Clinton says, that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. Although UNSCOM, the U.N. special commission, has located and destroyed more of his nuclear, chemical and biological arms than were destroyed in the gulf war, it is the first to admit that Saddam still has some doomsday weapons stashed away and the ability to make more.

The question is how many and where? That is what Clinton's demand for "unfettered access" to U.N. weapons inspectors is all about.

A congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare says Saddam shipped many chemical and biological agents, along with 400 Scud missiles, to sympathetic Arab states - including Sudan, Yemen, Libya and Algeria - to prevent them being destroyed by American bombing after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. What's to say he hasn't done so again?

Also, by Clinton's own admission, Iraqi officials "spirited evidence out of the back doors of suspect facilities as inspectors walked through the front door." That questions the effectiveness of the inspection regime Washington is so eager to enforce. And Saddam has had four more months to hide whatever it is he wanted to hide since throwing U.N. inspectors out of his country altogether.

Instead of going after the weapons, why aren't we going after the man who would use them? Because that would take troops on the ground. And, although Clinton has amassed 30,000 American soldiers in the gulf region, they are not nearly enough for an invasion. At most, they will be used to defend Kuwait - our sole ally in this confrontation - and rescue a downed pilot or two.

All the pronouncements from the White House and the Pentagon indicate that this administration is still relying on air power to accomplish what seven years of sanctions and three previous missile strikes have failed to achieve.

And many Americans (and British) approve of bombing Iraq. They ignore the fact that our problem with Saddam is much like the problem we had with Manuel Noriega - it was not with the Panamanian people but their leader. So is it right to bomb the Iraqi people for the sins of their leader?

Clinton brags that sanctions have denied Saddam $110 billion in oil revenue. But they have not prevented him from selling oil to his enemy, Iran, and our NATO friend, Turkey, both overt sanctions busters. And they have not prevented him from building multiple palaces - the so-called "presidential sites" where U.N. inspectors believe he has stashed arms - while inflicting massive suffering on the Iraqi people.

Baghdad says an estimated 1.5 million children have died needlessly in the past seven years because of shortages of food and medicine caused by U.N. sanctions. U.N. officials say the figure is half that but concede that children are the principal victims of a conflict they cannot comprehend.

A UNICEF report said chronic malnutrition and death rates for children under 5 increased 70 percent since August 1991. A child with diarrhea in 1990 had a one in 600 chance of dying; in 1996 this became one in 50. The report attributed malnutrition to plunging incomes, particularly in the civil service where salaries now average $3 to $5 a month.

Mental illness, divorce and crime also are increasing. Fewer couples are marrying, leading to a weakening of sexual taboos.

Visitors to Amman report that many Iraqi women from high-end professions, such as doctors and university professors, visit the Jordanian capital to work as prostitutes just so they can earn enough money to buy supplies for their families back in Baghdad.

Sympathy for the Iraqi people - and the knowledge that Saddam will be around long after the last American bomber has flown home - has eroded Arab support for any kind of U.S. military action. Bahrain has just withdrawn its welcome mat for our GIs, leaving Kuwait the only gulf nation where they can actually set foot on dry land.

Arab attitudes are best summed up by a "Middle East Quiz" circulating on the Internet.

"Which country in the Middle East is in defiance of 69 U.N. Security Council resolutions and has been protected from 29 more by U.S. vetoes?" it asks. "Answer: Israel."

"And what country is the United States threatening to bomb because U.N. Security Council resolutions must be obeyed? Answer: Iraq."