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USA Today September 17, 2002

Iraqi forces remain big question for U.S.

WASHINGTON — There's no debate that the United States would win a war against Iraq. The only question is how much of a fight the Iraqi military could muster against a U.S. invasion.

Saddam Hussein's military "is poorly trained, poorly equipped and demoralized," says John Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org. "But it is too big to ignore."

The Iraqi armed forces remain "the most effective military power in the (Persian) Gulf," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Just how effective is a question getting renewed attention. Iraq's offer Monday to let U.N. weapons inspectors back in very likely will have no effect on Pentagon planning for a mission set by President Bush: to overthrow Saddam. Options range from an Afghan-like uprising employing opposition groups to a full-scale invasion. Every scenario involves overcoming the military and security forces that have kept Saddam in power.

And any war holds deadly potential for U.S. forces and Iraq's neighbors. Cordesman's think-tank released a report Thursday that warns Saddam could unleash chemical or biological weapons on American troops and Israel if he feels threatened. Other experts recently told The New York Times that there's evidence Saddam is moving troops and equipment closer to Baghdad, so any U.S.-led invading force would have to fight an urban war — a much more difficult operation than the open fighting in the desert that marked the Persian Gulf conflict.

Still, Iraq's streamlined military force of 424,000 is less than half the size it was just before the Gulf War in 1991. In that conflict, Baghdad lost thousands of troops in combat as well as thousands of tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces during a five-week air campaign and 100-hour ground war.

Since then, Iraq has been barred by United Nations sanctions from buying new weapons or restocking spare parts. Although its legally sanctioned arms imports have dropped from $3 billion a year before the war to virtually zero, U.S. officials say Iraq diverts up to $2 billion a year from the U.N. oil-for-food program to buy weapons.

Despite that, defense experts say Saddam has been unable to modernize most major weapons systems. Two-thirds of his armor and aircraft are worn, broken or obsolete.

"Their equipment is rusting underneath their feet," says Kenneth Pollack of the Council on Foreign Relations, a research group. "We were a generation ahead in 1990, and now we're two generations ahead."

But analysts warn against overconfidence about how easy a war against Iraq would be. They note it still took 43 days to push the Iraqis out of Kuwait. The stakes are higher now that President Bush has made it clear he wants to overthrow Saddam's regime.

According to the authoritative reference book, The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iraq's defenses include:

  • Army and security forces.Regular army troops, concentrated north and south of Baghdad, have shrunk to 375,000 from 955,000 in 1990. Most divisions are understaffed and suffer from low morale. Units lack transports to move troops and equipment.

But if the Pentagon chooses an "inside-out" commando raid aimed at Saddam and his power base in Baghdad, U.S. special operations forces will face a much tougher adversary.

Saddam's Republican Guard, comprising 80,000 men clustered around Baghdad, are better trained and equipped than the army. "It is where the fighting ability is," says Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.

Even more trusted are 25,000 to 35,000 members of the Special Republican Guard, Saddam's private security force stationed in Baghdad. Rounding out the forces protecting the regime are thousands of military intelligence agents, secret police, border guards and other security services.

  • Air force. Hundreds of combat aircraft were destroyed or moved to Iran during and just after the Gulf War. Most of the 316 warplanes in Iraq are obsolete Soviet models, and more than half of them are grounded for lack of maintenance or spare parts. Pilots log few flying hours and are hemmed in by allied "no-fly zones" set up after the Gulf War to protect ethnic minorities in northern and southern Iraq.
  • Navy.Iraq's meager navy was devastated during the Gulf War. The prewar fleet of 38 combat vessels has been reduced to six obsolete guided-missile patrol craft. Saddam still has a relatively modern and sophisticated supply of anti-ship missiles and mines, however.
  • Biological and chemical weapons.U.S. officials say Saddam has worked to reconstitute his program to develop weapons of mass destruction since forcing U.N. weapons inspectors out of Iraq in 1998.

According to the United Nations and Iraqi defectors, his biological arsenal includes anthrax, botulism and toxins from fungi. Stockpiled chemicals include nerve agents such as VX and sarin.

Analysts say Iraq could deliver these poisons in 20 to 80 Scud missiles that probably have been dismantled but could quickly be reassembled. But Cordesman discounts the threat. He says Iraq's chemical and biological weapons and its ability to deliver them are "most likely to be so limited in technology and operational lethality that they do not constrain U.S. freedom of action."

Saddam did load these agents into missiles during the Gulf War but didn't use them. Some experts say he is more likely to use them this time. If he does, analysts say, casualties could approach levels during that conflict, when 148 Americans died in combat.

Barring chemical or biological attack, U.S. casualties would depend on how hard the Iraqis fight. About 200,000 Iraqis surrendered or deserted during the Gulf War.

"Some Iraqi soldiers may have had illusions before the Gulf War, but that's gone," says defense expert Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University. The Iraqi army "was thoroughly crushed by the American military. It's not going to have a tremendous will to fight."



Copyright 2002 USA Today