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War planners reassess how to invade Iraq

If the United States can't go in through Turkey, it could capture bases in northern Iraq or divert personnel to Kuwait.

Compiled from Times wires
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2003


WASHINGTON -- Without Turkish bases to open a northern front against Iraq, the U.S. military still could take Baghdad, but with more difficulty and risk, officials and analysts say.

The U.S. war plan calls for attacks on Iraq from Kuwait in the south and Turkey in the north, in a bid to complicate Iraq's defense planning and ease U.S. logistical problems.

In a weekend move that surprised U.S. officials, however, the Turkish Parliament rejected a motion that would have granted a U.S. request to position tens of thousands of ground forces for the assault into northern Iraq and to station about 200 strike aircraft at two other bases.

It was not clear whether that was Turkey's last word on the matter. Reconsideration could come as early as Tuesday, but the head of Turkey's ruling party said Sunday there are no plans in the "foreseeable future" to seek a parliamentary vote.

Defense officials on Sunday told the Associated Press that Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command a U.S. war in Iraq, has not given up on Turkey.

The Turkish vote presents war planners with at least three choices: wait for the Turks to vote again and risk the possibility of a second rejection and further delay. Use the 82nd Airborne or other quick-reaction troops to secure airfields in Kurdish-held northern Iraq that would allow the United States to bring in heavy mechanized forces by air from Europe and elsewhere. Or reroute forces to Kuwait.

But each carries drawbacks and risks. A second Turkish rejection would delay eventual redeployment of U.S. forces to Kuwait by at least two to four weeks. Bringing in heavy forces by air to Kurdish-held northern Iraq would be a monumental task requiring weeks, if not months, and would tie up cargo jets that are committed to the buildup in Kuwait.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior officials say U.S. forces are ready to attack if ordered. But troops in a number of scattered units say privately that much of the equipment they need is aboard transport ships and it could be several more weeks before they are ready to fight.

The Army's 101st Airborne Division is about one-third of the way through its deployment of 17,000 soldiers to Kuwait. Military officials say they expect the rest of the unit to arrive within seven to 10 days.

But much of the division's helicopters and other heavy equipment is on its way to Kuwait aboard ships and is not expected to arrive for at least two weeks. Once that equipment, including 270 attack and transport helicopters, is offloaded from ships, it could take seven to 10 days before the unit is ready for combat, a military official told Knight Ridder Newspapers.

Senior U.S. defense officials have maintained for months that an allied attack could begin with a "rolling start" even before U.S. ground forces are fully deployed. Under that scenario, other ground forces could join the war as they arrive in Kuwait or elsewhere.

Even though the plan runs counter to conventional U.S. military doctrine, which calls for an advantage of at least 3-to-1 in a ground attack, many officers believe the imbalance would be offset by superior technology, tactics and intelligence data.

"Our line of advance becomes more predictable" if the main ground assault is from Kuwait rather than being split between Kuwait and Turkey, said analyst Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

It also concentrates the bulk of U.S. ground forces in a relatively small area -- northern Kuwait -- and gives Iraqi President Saddam Hussein added incentive to attempt a pre-emptive strike with chemical or biological weapons, Cordesman said.

The United States has attempted in recent days to guard against such a strike by bombing Iraqi surface-to-surface missiles, multiple-launch rocket systems and artillery within range of Kuwait.

Another complication, if Turkish air bases are not available, is finding suitable basing for the 200 or more U.S. warplanes Franks wanted at the Diyarbakir and Batman bases in southeastern Turkey. Cordesman said bases in the Gulf are saturated with hundreds of American and allied fighters, bombers and support aircraft.

U.S. and British planes fly patrols over northern Iraq from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. That presumably would remain available even if no other air or army bases are opened to U.S. forces.

The north of Iraq is important in Franks' war planning for several reasons. It features the antigovernment Kurds, including factions that have been fighting with Turkey for years. It also contains major oil fields that Franks wants to secure and control at the earliest stages of an invasion.

"It will not fundamentally affect our ability to succeed militarily, but it will alter our ability to be, in effect, interspersed and be the interlocutors between the Kurds and the Turks," Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News Sunday.

The most pressing decision for Franks, in consultation with Rumsfeld and other administration officials, is whether to abandon the plan to position the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey.

The Fort Hood, Texas, division's tanks and other weaponry and supplies are aboard more than three dozen ships waiting off the coast of Turkey. The soldiers remain at Fort Hood. If they cannot go to Turkey, they most likely would be flown to Kuwait.

With the 4th Infantry Division's two dozen military cargo ships in the eastern Mediterranean standing by to unload tanks and other weaponry, Pentagon officials have been saying for days that virtually no time remained before the ships would have to be redirected to Kuwait and the war plan changed.

But no such order came Sunday, the Washington Post reported, citing several military officials, suggesting some slight flexibility existed in the Pentagon's timetable.

On Sunday, a Turkish government official told the Washington Post the leadership was divided about whether to pursue a second vote to allow the troops. Complicating the decision was the closeness of Saturday's vote. Though lawmakers voted 264-250 in favor of the U.S. deployment, the measure failed because 19 members abstained and an absolute majority of lawmakers present is required.

A party official said the leadership might try to persuade members who abstained to stay home during a second vote, allowing the measure to pass if other legislators don't change their votes.

But any attempt to resubmit the question to parliament would be risky for the Justice and Development Party, which took power less than four months ago and saw nearly 100 of its members buck the party line Saturday. The defection of more than a quarter of the party's lawmakers was a surprise because only 30 members indicated they would vote no during a party straw poll hours earlier, the party official said.

"The government is trying to buy some time," said Ferai Tinc, a foreign policy columnist for Turkey's largest newspaper, Hurriyet. "The question is if the United States is willing to wait."

Several U.S. senators, speaking on television news shows Sunday, expressed shock at the vote.

"It's a huge setback for our purposes. It stunned me," Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, said on CNN's Late Edition. "We spent the last 50 years defending them in NATO. And along comes this opportunity, and by three votes they decline the opportunity to allow us to come in through the north."

-- Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.

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