The bombing of Baghdad does not mean the end is near - only the beginning of the end.


While some end times interpreters see the U.S. war with Iraq as a sure sign that the Second Coming is at hand, at least one prophecy authority prefers patience over pinpoint predictions.


"My basic take is that stuff going on over there now is no direct fulfillment of prophecy, and that is very important to see," said Mark Hitchcock, Pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla. and author of nine books on Biblical prophecy. "Some people will say this is the beginning of Armageddon ... but my whole view is more of a stage-setting kind of scenario."


Hitchcock, who holds to a pre-tribulation theology, likens the recent events in Iraq to actors preparing to go on stage.


"There will be a rapture someday, but right now the curtain is down and the players are behind that curtain getting ready," he said. "It's like a shadow ahead of a person walking along; the shadow is not the person, but an indication of what is coming behind. I think this strikingly foreshadows many of the things the Bible says about the end times."


Hitchcock somewhat bristles at those who point to the war as the fulfillment of some obscure Bible passage. For example, Saddam Hussein can be translated "Destroyer," which also is the word for Abaddon, the army leader in Revelation 9, Verse 11 - yes, 9:11 - who is filled with evil.


"The problem is that Abaddon is the king of the abyss, which is the underworld. I don't think that is Saddam, but Satan or a demon," Hitchcock said. "I think it's wrong to [broadcast incorrect conclusions], but it's also wrong to go to the other extreme and say there are no signs of the times at all. I try to come down in between."


In other words, he is intrigued by some of the seemingly prophetic tidbits - e.g. - Revelation 16 includes the only mention of Armageddon and mentions the Euphrates River, which runs through Iraq - but doesn't see them as airtight answers to end times questions.


While not convinced that the war with Iraq signals the imminent return of Jesus, Hitchcock does believe the conflict's eventual result - the removal of Hussein and his regime - is a big step in that direction.


In his latest book, The Second Coming of Babylon, the author lays out what the Bible says about how Babylon (modern-day Iraq) will be rebuilt in the final days and how the country will become a great world commercial center (Revelation 18) before it falls again.


"What's going on now is we're getting Saddam out of there and going to get the oil flowing again," he said, adding that Iraq only pumps 20 percent of the oil it can produce and would become much more of an world economic impact player if that production reached its potential.