Past News Archive
WASHINGTON, April 27 - The Bush administration, in developing a potential approach for toppling President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, is concentrating its attention on a major air campaign and ground invasion, with initial estimates contemplating the use of 70,000 to 250,000 troops.
The administration is turning to that approach after concluding
that a coup in Iraq would be unlikely to succeed and that a proxy battle using
local forces there would be insufficient to bring a change in power.
But senior officials now acknowledge that any offensive would probably be delayed until early next year, allowing time to create the right military, economic and diplomatic conditions. These include avoiding summer combat in bulky chemical suits, preparing for a global oil price shock, and waiting until there is progress toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Until recently, the administration had contemplated a possible confrontation with Mr. Hussein this fall, after building a case at the United Nations that the Iraqi leader is unwilling to allow the kind of highly intrusive inspections needed to prove that he has no weapons of mass destruction.
Now that schedule seems less realistic. Conflict in the Middle East has widened a rift within the administration over whether military action can be undertaken without inflaming Arab states and prompting anti-American violence throughout the region.
In his public speeches, President Bush still sounds as intent as ever about ousting Mr. Hussein, making it clear that he will not let the Middle East crisis obscure his goal. But he has not issued any order for the Pentagon to mobilize its forces, and today there is no official "war plan."
Instead, policy makers and operational commanders are trying to sketch out the broad outlines of the confrontation they expect.
Among the many questions they must address is where to base
air and ground forces in the region.
Even before Mr. Bush's tense meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Thursday, the Pentagon was working on the assumption that it might have to carry out any military action without the use of bases in the kingdom.
The planning now anticipates the possible extensive use of bases
for American forces in Turkey and Kuwait, with Qatar as the replacement for
the sophisticated air operations center in Saudi Arabia, and with Oman and
Bahrain playing important roles.
As to any war plan itself, the military expects to be asked for a more traditional approach than the unconventional campaign in Afghanistan. Such an approach would resemble the Persian Gulf war in style if not in size and would be fought with even more modern weapons and more dynamic tactics.
"The president has not made any decisions," a senior Defense Department official said. "But any efforts against Iraq will not look like what we did in Afghanistan."
In terms of diplomatic reaction from the region, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their senior aides contend that Arab leaders would publicly protest but secretly celebrate Mr. Hussein's downfall - as long as the operation were decisive - and that ousting him would actually ease the job of calming violence between Israel and the Palestinians. They believe that warnings of uprisings among Arab populations are overblown and compare them to similar warnings before the gulf war, which proved unfounded.
"It has been the consistent drumbeat from our friends in the region that if we are serious, they will be with us," said one administration official in this camp.
But at the State Department and among some at the White House, counterarguments are posed that efforts to topple Mr. Hussein would be viewed by Arabs as a confrontation with Islam, destabilizing the entire region and complicating the broader campaign against Osama bin Laden and his network, Al Qaeda.
The reaction in Saudi Arabia is already critical.
The United States would need permission to use Saudi airspace adjacent to Iraq, if not Saudi air bases, officials said, but it is unclear whether Mr. Bush took up that subject with Crown Prince Abdullah when the topic of Iraq came up. Mr. Rumsfeld, who met with the Saudi leader a day ahead of Mr. Bush, said access to bases "was not a topic at all" of his discussions.
Turkish officials, for their part, said that no negotiations on basing American troops for a new campaign against Iraq had yet taken place; American officials confirmed that, calling such talks premature.
Kuwait's position, too, is uncertain. At an Arab League summit meeting in March, Iraq agreed to recognize Kuwait and pledged not to invade again in exchange for a declaration that an attack on Iraq would be considered an attack against all Arab states. But American officials said they could rely on Kuwait, whose very survival is owed to American military power after Iraq invaded the country in 1990.
Senior administration, Pentagon and military officials say that consensus has emerged that there is little chance for a military coup to unseat Mr. Hussein from within, even with the United States exerting economic and military pressure and providing covert assistance.
"There have been at least six coup attempts in the 1990's, and they consistently fail," said an administration official. In each instance, this official said, dissident Iraqi military officers "sent signals to us, `We're ready for a coup,' and the next thing you know these guys are murdered or it fails or people have cold feet at the end and leave the country."
"It's a horrific police state," the official said. "Nobody trusts anyone, so how can you pull off a coup?"
Similarly, officials say they do not believe that even an expanded version of the strategy used to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan would work. In that model, precision airstrikes combined with indigenous armed opposition under the leadership of American Special Operations forces and C.I.A. officers did the job.
The parallel strategy in Iraq would involve the Kurds in the
north and the Shiites in the south. But Mr. Hussein's military, while only
one-third its strength from before the gulf war, is strong enough to defeat
any confrontation by proxy, officials said.
Officials said the nascent plans for a heavy air campaign and land assault already included rough numbers of troops, ranging from a minimum of about 70,000 to 100,000 - one Army corps or a reinforced corps - to a top of 250,000 troops, which still would be only half the number used in the gulf war. Other than troops from Britain, no significant contribution of allied forces is anticipated.
The military requirements for changing the government in Baghdad would be vastly different than the gulf war mission, which was to drive an entrenched enemy from a large occupied area, senior military officers said.
"We would not need to hold territory and protect our flanks to the same extent," one officer said. "You would see a higher level of maneuver and airborne assault, dropping in vertically and enveloping targets - less slogging mile by mile through the desert."
Even so, officers said, moving tens of thousands of troops to a region with access more limited than in the gulf war could be a logistical challenge. The modern American military has never fought the kind of dangerous and complicated urban battles that might be needed to oust the Hussein government.
Dealing with Mr. Hussein's suspected chemical and biological weapons would require pre-emptive strikes by precision weapons, as well as an element of heavy deterrence.
"One of the things we would want to do is say that any Iraqi officer or soldier who throws chemical or biological weapons at us will be held personally responsible," said Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who directed the Air Force's definitive study of the Persian Gulf war. "You say, `You guys operating the missile batteries: we will find you, and you will pay.' Saddam's people have no desire to go down in a blaze of glory with him."
While the Pentagon has focused on how to remove Mr. Hussein, the White House is also mindful of the effects of a war on oil supplies - either because the fighting itself would disrupt the flow of oil, or because Saudi Arabia and other Arab producers would feel obliged because of political pressure at home to cut back on exports to the United States.
R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, said the administration had examined the possible effects of a spike in oil prices caused by spreading unrest in the Middle East or an invasion of Iraq.
He said a surge in oil prices would probably not by itself have
a large effect on the American economy.
But he said it was more difficult to assess the possible effects on consumer and business confidence.
One of the lessons of the gulf war, he said, was that consumer confidence recovered once the United States made clear that it intended to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and guarantee the security of the Saudi oilfields.
In November, Mr. Bush ordered that the government's Strategic
Petroleum Reserve be filled to capacity.
A review of the delivery schedule for the reserve shows that many of the largest monthly deliveries come between September and January, another reason for pushing any offensive against Iraq off to early next year.
"We want to be in a position to go into the markets if speculators begin bidding up the price of oil, and settle them down fast," one official said.
In the end, however, it would take a much more massive military commitment than in Afghanistan if the United States were to attack Iraq.
In all, analysts say, 100,000 or more American troops might be needed against Saddam Hussein, who could shield his elite Republican Guard troops by placing them among Baghdad's civilians - and who might retaliate with chemical attacks.
``It is a major, major decision,'' Sen. John Warner warned the Bush administration last week. If the government is contemplating full-scale military action against Iraq, ``We've got to prepare the American people for what the consequences would be,'' said Warner, R-Va.
U.S. officials say they have not decided whether to attack Iraq. The administration accuses Saddam of developing weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terrorists, and says it is considering options from diplomatic pressure to covert action to military strikes.
If Bush did decide on military action, he would have options ranging from isolated airstrikes to support for Iraqi rebels to a full-scale assault aimed at overthrowing Saddam.
``Anything short of a ground invasion would run a high risk of failure,'' said Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution, who echoes many analysts in saying that if military action is taken, it must be decisive.
An attack generally would feature more special forces and more precision bombs than were used in the 1991 Gulf War.
Most analysts believe an attack would not come before the fall because the administration would give Saddam a chance to readmit U.N. weapons inspectors first. The United States also would need several months to build up troops in the region, as well as restock precision-guided munitions depleted during the Afghan fighting.
Iraq is much more robust militarily than the Taliban who ruled Afghanistan, although Iraq is weaker than before the 1991 war. It now has an estimated 2,000 tanks, several hundred aircraft, about 350,000 to 400,000 troops and a fairly sophisticated air defense system.
If an air campaign were to begin, Saddam might try to launch Scud missiles, perhaps with chemical or biological weapons on them, against Israel or U.S. troops, said retired Rear Adm. Stephen Baker of the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
The United States could use unmanned, armed Predator aircraft to try to search for and destroy Scud launchers and the missiles themselves before they are fired.
``Handling this threat will be one of the hardest, most challenging missions in Iraq,'' Baker said.
The United States also might try to insert special forces teams to create areas under U.S. control where the Iraqi army could not operate and where Americans could search for elusive biological, chemical and nuclear weapons sites.
Several carrier battle groups probably would be in the area - one or two in the Red Sea and two or three in the Persian Gulf - to launch airstrikes or perhaps serve as a base to insert special forces, Baker said.
The Air Force would want to operate bombers from bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey and the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia - depending on who allowed that. Ground operations might be staged mostly from Kuwait.
Only cooperation from Kuwait is necessary to begin an invasion, but cooperation from Saudi Arabia would help immensely, said Kenneth Pollack, director of national security affairs for the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. officials say they are taking steps, including moving equipment to a base in Qatar, to ensure they could spearhead a war in the Gulf, even if Saudi Arabia refused to allow U.S. operations on its soil.
U.S. forces have been increased in recent months in Kuwait - from 5,500 to about 10,500 - but only to warn Iraq not to make threats against its neighbors, defense officials say.
The number of U.S. military personnel in the Gulf region and Central Asia - from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan - has increased from fewer than 25,000 to nearly 80,000, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The U.S. military also might send special forces teams to work with Kurds or with Iraqi dissident groups in the north, where Saddam's army cannot operate because of a no-fly zone.
One hope is that once U.S. military action began, those groups would rebel. If Saddam seemed in jeopardy, regular army soldiers and officers might rebel. It is unclear how loyal the Republican Guard would prove.
Another problem would loom if Saddam tried to place the Republican Guard in Baghdad. The United States would have to decide whether to attack at the risk of killing Iraqi civilians.
And, there is always the wild card that Saddam might launch other attacks with weapons of mass destruction if he felt personally threatened.
In the end, many analysts believe America would succeed if it launched a full-scale invasion, although it probably would mean casualties.
But then, the tough job of stabilizing Iraq would begin - an effort that could mean placing tens of thousands of U.S. military troops in Iraq for years to come as America and others scramble to find a stable leader.
``Removing Saddam will be opening a Pandora's box, and there might not be any easy way to close it back up,'' Gordon said.