The war isn't over, after all.

A research arm of Congress is now clouding up an Air Force decision last week to give Hill Air Force Base and Boeing a $1.1 billion contract for work from a closing California base.The U.S. General Accounting Office decided to support a protest by a contractor that contended the Air Force improperly limited competition by the way it set up bids for that contract.

PEMCO, which performed work on KC-135 aircraft at the closing McClellan Air Force Base, Calif., contended the Air Force bundled almost all the work from McClellan into one large contract, preventing it from bidding for just the KC-135 work.

The GAO agreed that the Air Force's "request for proposals" for that bidding was flawed - a charge also made by Utah politicians early in the process but withdrawn once it appeared that Hill would win.

That action by the GAO does not necessarily cancel the contract for Hill. But it may make it difficult.

"It's just a recommendation. The Air Force is not obliged by law to follow it," said Bob Lockwood, a military affairs aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Bill Johnson, legislative director for Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said the Air Force has several options on how to proceed - and Hansen feels that all will eventually bring the work to Hill.

First, he said that because the protest didn't have anything to do directly with the contract awarded last week - just the preliminary "request for proposal" that led to it later - the Air Force could proceed with the contract now anyway .

"We hope that's what they will do," Johnson said.

But Lockwood said such a decision despite the GAO ruling could be challenged by PEMCO in federal court. "They still would have to seek a restraining order to stop the contract. That's tough to get from most judges."

Johnson said another option is for the Air Force to cancel the competition just won by Hill but give Hill the work anyway. He said Hill officials have long contended that the Air Force didn't have to take bids if it wants to give itself the work at Hill.

A third option, Johnson said, is to cancel the competition and take new bids.

"Mr. Hansen believes the one constant in those options is that the work will come to Ogden (Air Logistics Center at Hill). How the Air Force deals with what is essentially an internal Air Force problem doesn't bother us," he said.

"But the Air Force has said from the beginning that any further delay is a severe risk to readiness. Therefore, we want them to get on with it," Johnson said.

He added, "We expect the Air Force will make a speedy decision to award the work to Ogden and get on with closing McClellan and saving the $638 million predicted in this contract."

At the base Monday, details of the report and the status of the jobs remained hazy.

"I could go through speculation upon speculation, and none of them may happen," said Bruce Collins, deputy director of public affairs for Hill. Collins had not yet seen the report on Monday.

The contract awarded last week was expected to bring between 750 and 1,000 new jobs to Hill.

The action by the GAO sours what had been jubilation at Hill when the contract was awarded last week. It was seen at the end of a nasty three-year war between Republicans and President Clinton that had threatened the survival of the base.

A base closure commission in 1995 ruled that the Air Force's five logistics centers were wasting far too much money because they used only 50 percent of their capacity. It ordered the two lowest-ranked centers closed, and work consolidated elsewhere.

But they were in the vote-rich states of California and Texas. So Clinton vowed in his 1996 campaign to try to keep the work in place by giving it to contractors there.

Republicans in Congress said that violated orders from the base closure commission and would not save any money by cutting overhead through closure of underused facilities. They passed several laws and appropriations in recent years to reinforce that.

Earlier this year, Utah's members of Congress obtained a memo where Pentagon officials said they had expected Boeing to team with PEMCO and keep work at McClellan instead. When it teamed with Hill instead, the White House asked the Pentagon to find someone else to team with PEMCO at McClellan to keep work there - as the president had promised in his campaign.

Utahns said that proved the White House was trying to tip the scales unfairly for McClellan, although the White House said it was simply trying to ensure healthy competition for the contract.