How to paint a bullseye on Iraq
By RON BRACKETT, Times Staff Writer
It may seem odd -- unpatriotic even -- to have the United States busily planning a war with Iraq and to have details of those plans leaking out to the media.
There's the Gulf War Lite plan in which a quarter-million U.S. troops rush into Iraq from three sides and roll through enemy targets on their way to Baghdad.
In the Afghan Option, Special Forces personnel team up with Iraqi rebels and seize parts of northern Iraq. As more and more dissidents join the cause, the forces march on Baghdad.
The Inside Out plan has warplanes bombing military leadership and weapons of mass destruction sites and U.S. troops parachuting into Baghdad to capture or kill Iraqi leaders. When that happens, much of the Iraqi army surrenders and the Iraqi people, glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, welcome their liberators.
It's that last plan, with alterations, that appears most in favor now. Gen. Tommy Franks, who is in charge of U.S. military operations in the Mideast as commander of Central Command in Tampa, briefed President Bush on just such an option on Aug. 5, according to reports in the past week or so.
Those reports, always attributed to unnamed sources in the administration or at the Pentagon, say the massive invasion was proving too ponderous and the plan to use Iraqi rebels, much as the United States relied on Northern Alliance help in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, was just too risky.
In Franks' latest scenario, according to published reports, warplanes and cruise missiles are used to strike deep inside the country at key command centers and sites where chemical and biological weapons might be stored. This would cut off the country's leadership and prevent Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction. Then, U.S. ground troops race to Baghdad from Kuwait to take the capital. The hope is that Hussein is quickly killed or captured and without him, his regime collapses.
Of course, wars and weddings never come off without a hitch. The planners always have to have contingency plans. And this is just the latest idea that is being floated. Even the experts can't say with certainty that this is how an invasion would come about.
"I would say that when we looked at this last December, this appeared to be the least risky plan, and something like this is apparently what they are talking about when people say the Pentagon is looking at a plan involving 50,000 to 80,000 troops," says John Pike, a defense expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org. "What the U.S. will actually do, I can't predict."
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says, "Until someone starts talking about how many helicopters and how much armament will be used and where it will actually be placed, it's impossible to say how an invasion would play out."
Then why are so many details being leaked?
The leaks reflect divisions in the Bush administration over what to do. Proponents of a plan may want to float it to see what type of reaction it gets from the public. Opponents of a proposal may reveal parts of the plan to get it squashed.
"Also, in part, it surely must be an effort to confuse and bewilder the Iraqi leadership," Pike says.
Even with all the leaks, the Iraqis aren't learning a great deal new about potential U.S. invasions.
"The range of American and Iraqi military options is not great. There are only a few different concepts of operation that the U.S. has at its disposal and only a small number that Iraq has," says Pike of GlobalSecurity, an independent policy research group.
Just as the United States has scores of planners looking at those options, so does Iraq. The strength and weaknesses are easy to identify.
"If you started thinking about this after breakfast, you would have figured all this out by lunch time," Pike says.
The plans that have been leaked "are no surprise to any observer of regional military affairs," he says.
Pike sees three options that Iraq could exercise:
It could attack from Basra, an Iraqi city just north of Kuwait. Since the Persian Gulf War, the United States has kept several thousand troops in Kuwait to make such an attack risky for Hussein. If he does order an attack, it gives Bush a pretext for invading.
Hussein could redeploy troops to block U.S. lines of advance. Again, Pike says, this provides a pretext for war. Bush could say Iraq is preparing to invade Kuwait again.
Hussein's preferred option, Pike says, would be to lure U.S. troops into Iraqi cities and engage them in urban warfare.
Pikes notes that Baghdad is one of the largest cities on the planet, with nearly 5-million inhabitants. Fighting there could be unlike any other the United States has ever experienced.
"The biggest question is what happens when you get to Baghdad. Will the appearance of U.S. troops on the outskirts of the city provoke the collapse of the regime or are you going to have to take Baghdad one street at a time?" Pike says.
"The gamble is that the Iraqi people want to be free and if it looks as if Hussein's regime is collapsing, his thugs and henchmen will flee."
An overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people have known no leadership other than Hussein. His regime is patterned on the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes of the 20th century. Hussein, Pike says, has indoctrinated the young into blind loyalty. The United States could find that those Iraqis would fight fiercely for Baghdad.
Or maybe not. Videotapes of the vast military parades staged by Hussein show crowds of spectators who seem to be going through the motions, says Pike. He doesn't detect a great deal of sincere enthusiasm.
"One thing that keeps authoritarian regimes in power is the fear that if you don't do what it says today, you'll be sorry tomorrow. As soon as that threat of retribution becomes no longer believable . . . then they won't be there tomorrow," Pike says. "Will that happen in Iraq? I don't know."
That's the issue that intelligence agencies and senior decisionmakers in the Bush administration are weighing now. If the Iraqi people don't turn against Hussein and the regime doesn't collapse, America could be looking at a long and brutal fight.
"The U.S. troops could get to the west side of Baghdad and spend the next year fighting their way to the east side," Pike says.
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