Ground war first this time
By SARA FRITZ and PAUL DELAGARZA
WASHINGTON -- This time, war in the Middle East is likely to start on the ground, not in the air.
With 135,000 American troops already in and around Iraq, military experts believe a quick ground fight will precede the bombing of Baghdad. The reason: to secure Iraq's oil fields and weapons of mass destruction.
The approach is the opposite used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a demonstration, some believe, that the U.S. military is willing to risk American casualties to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Yet the early deployment of ground troops to the region also makes it more difficult for the United States to reverse course if Hussein should decide to make a last minute concession by cooperating with weapons inspectors. It creates what Michael O'Hanlon, military analyst at the Brookings Institution, calls "the feeling of inevitability and irreversibility."
While President Bush could still halt the assault on Iraq, O'Hanlon said, it would be much more difficult for him to reverse a ground incursion than to order U.S. bombers to stand down. He said it would be like turning around "the big freight train of the U.S. military getting ready for war."
Other analysts agree there is too much momentum for President Bush to reconsider, even in light of objections raised by allies France, Germany and Russia. "The strategic war has already begun," retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper told the Washington Post.
The buildup for war with Iraq began months ago, of course, but only recently has it reached a critical mass. The United States now has special operations forces positioned inside Iraq -- in the north, west and south -- and the number of American troops poised in Kuwait and other staging areas in the region will soon reach 150,000.
Dan Goure, defense analyst for the Lexington Institution, said there could be as many as 50 special operations forces who have entered Iraq already from Jordan and Turkey, where they have access to military bases. They were preceded months earlier by CIA operatives, who have contacted opposition leaders and established recognizance.
The mission of the special operations forces, Goure said, is "to soften the enemy" in the same way similar forces operated in Afghanistan before the outbreak of hostilities there on Oct. 7, 2001.
Although Hussein surely knows that some American forces are already inside Iraq, they are in rural places where they cannot be easily detected. "They are not walking around the streets of Baghdad wearing funny disguises," O'Hanlon emphasized.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the Central Command chief, who conferred with Bush at the White House on Thursday, earlier anticipated the United States would begin with heavy bombing, as it did in 1991, followed by a slow armoured advance.
But Goure said that leading with a rapid incursion of small combat teams is the only way to capture Hussein and to prevent him from either using weapons of mass destruction or conducting a scorched-earth campaign that includes setting the oil fields on fire.
O'Hanlon said he hopes the Iraqis are watching Black Hawk Down, the movie about the massacre of U.S. troops in Mogadishu, Somalia, because it creates a false impression that the U.S. does not want to engage in urban combat. On the contrary, he said, American troops are prepared to fight from house to house in Baghdad, if necessary.
Col. Bill Darley, a spokesman for the Tampa-based Special Operations Command, said that while he cannot confirm the presence of special operations forces inside Iraq, he is free to say the mission of such forces is unconventional warfare, including working with indigenous forces, targeting military installations and engaging in psychological warfare.
With daily leaflet drops in Iraq, for example, Darley said special ops is "trying to persuade people that when or if anything comes, it would be a prudent thing to support the forces of liberation."
For several months, there has been small scale bombing by U.S. and British aircraft patroling the no-fly zone in northern and southern Iraq. When full-scale bombing of Baghdad begins, according to Goure, it will be a brief, but intense air campaign of perhaps 24 to 72 hours to wipe out command and control centers, Iraqi air defenses and the Republican Guard.
In Afghanistan, special operations forces were widely credited with contributing to a rapid U.S. military victory, by, among other things, working closely with the opposition Northern Alliance. Special operations troops totaled about 300 in Afghanistan.
Darley cautioned, however, that no two military conflicts are the same. "Whatever conflict comes out in the Middle East," he said, "will probably not look like any previous conflict, including Afghanistan."
The special operations forces, a 30,000-strong army with monikers like the "quiet warriors" and "snake eaters," are America's guerrilla warriors.
Using the stars as their only guide, they can sneak into and out of hostile territory. They can gather intelligence, execute acts of sabotage and identify enemy targets with beacons for airstrikes. They can even snatch an individual out of enemy territory or kill him.
In addition to near-flawless physical and mental agility, special operations forces train in every conceivable form of warfare: urban, jungle, desert and treacherous mountain terrain. And they operate in units as small as three or four people.
Of the thousands who try out for special operations, about 1 percent qualify.
The recruits, all men who are generally in their 30s and have at least 10 years' military experience, undergo an intense physical and mental regimen. For example, a training exercise known as "drown-proofing" requires a candidate to have his hands and feet bound before getting tossed into a pool.
As he surfaces, trainers slap the water surface. The idea is to teach him not to panic. Another exercise forces teams of four to carry a telephone pole as far as 20 miles in hot weather, the dead of winter or torrential rains.
-- Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
From the AP