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The Buffalo News March 10, 2003

Weighing risk of Iraq war

By Jerry Zremski

CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait - Sometime in the next few weeks, bombs are likely to light the night sky over Baghdad, pulverizing Iraq's key military installations.

At almost the same time, legions of American and British tanks and attack helicopters are likely to begin rushing from Kuwait toward the Iraqi capital, encountering little resistance until they reach Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard just outside the city.

Military leaders and experts say the coming war with Iraq is likely to be a fast, furious war that will lead to an American victory and the destruction of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

But it's also a risky war. In the worst-case scenario, it could mean successful chemical weapons attacks, resulting in thousands of casualties and a regionwide conflagration. It all depends on whether the Iraqis really fight - and whether they use chemical weapons to level the playing field against a technologically superior opponent.

"I think the war may be shorter, but much more violent, than the last one in 1991," said James Phillips, a defense analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Here at Camp Virginia, home of the Army's V Corps - which will coordinate the Army's campaign - there's nothing but optimism. Soldiers have completed the bulk of their training, and they're anxiously waiting for President Bush to give the orders to attack.

"I'm very confident in the soldiers and the officers we have here," said Col. Steve Cellucci, of Camp Virginia, which is just one of several Army tent cities that now fill the northern Kuwaiti desert. "After all the training, especially in the last year and a half, we're ready to go."

This second gulf war is expected to be much different than the first. That early 1991 conflict started with about 40 days of bombing and ended with a massive ground invasion that drove the Iraqi Army from Kuwait, which it had occupied the previous August. vThis time around, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are all expected to attack Iraq at the same time, thanks to a strategy that military planners last week called "shock and awe." The idea is to hit Iraq with so much firepower so fast that its soldiers cower and refuse to fight.

Sources close to Pentagon planners envision a three-pronged strategy.

In the middle of some night, hundreds of bombs will fall on Baghdad and on important military installations around Iraq. At the same time as that Air Force assault, Navy ships will launch hundreds of cruise missiles at Iraqi military targets.

Perhaps that very same night, U.S. and British armored vehicles will move forward into Iraq in a two-pronged assault, with the Marines and the British to the east and the vastly larger Army to the west. While the precise route of attack remains a secret, the coalition forces are expected to move as fast as they can, arriving at Baghdad within three days.

Meanwhile, Special Forces are expected to handle the toughest job of all: Parachuting in to take over and protect Iraq's oil fields from destruction and occupying suspected chemical-biological weapons sites before Saddam can use them.

That battle plan won't rely on strength in numbers. The total invasion force is expected to be about 250,000 - about half of what it was during the first gulf war. They'll encounter a 375,000-man Iraqi Army, plus 125,000 in the elite Republican Guard.

Instead, many military experts say that plan will succeed on the strength of America's overwhelming technological advantage.

"There's no comparison on the weapons situation," said retired Air Force Gen. Buster Glosson, who directed the air campaign against Iraq in the first gulf war. "We have the capability now to do in 24 to 36 hours what it took us seven days to accomplish in the gulf war."

That is, to win the ground battle.

America has air superiority over Iraq, thanks to laser and satellite-guided bombs and missiles that are unlike anything in the Iraqi arsenal, military experts said.

That means the real battle will be fought on the ground, and many think that, too, is likely to be a rout. Regular Iraqi Army soldiers surrendered without a fight throughout the first gulf war and are expected to do the same this time. Only the Republican Guard is likely to put up much of a fight.

Seeing the bloodshed all around them, though, those top-level troops might give up, too - and turn on their leader. Some experts expect Saddam to be overthrown even before American forces reach Baghdad.

"I think there's about a 90 percent chance that the war will be over within a week," said John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org defense think tank.

Richard Perle, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to the Bush administration who has been pushing for an Iraq invasion for years, agreed that the Iraqis will most likely give up without much of a fight.

"We will be largely welcomed in Iraq once the dust settles," Perle said.

Nevertheless, several wild cards could make the war more troublesome for America than the last gulf war.

For one thing, America will have difficulty dividing the Iraqi forces. The Pentagon wanted to base 60,000 U.S. troops in southern Turkey to serve as a launch pad for a ground attack north of Baghdad, but Turkey has thus far refused to allow the deployment.

That means light infantry troops, parachuting directly into northern Iraq, would have to open that northern front.

Because a tank can't be parachuted to the ground, those soldiers would arrive without the heavy artillery protection that the U.S. troops in the south would enjoy. And Phillips, of the Heritage Foundation, said that means the northern invasion would proceed more slowly, with the risk of higher U.S. casualties.

Another concern would arise if Saddam were to survive the first days of the war. At that point, he will likely withdraw his best troops into Baghdad to try to draw U.S. forces into dangerous street fighting, which would pose far more risks to troops than the typical open-field battle, Phillips added.

And worse of all, of course, Saddam could use the cache of chemical weapons that this war is intended to destroy. Several defense analysts said they're certain Saddam will most likely try to use missiles armed with the deadly VX gas nerve agent, but uncertain as to whether he will succeed.

U.S. forces have Patriot missiles ready to take down any of Iraq's chemical-armed Scud missiles, but there's always the chance that a stray missile could get through the U.S. defenses. Troops say they're confident, though, that they're adequately protected. Armored vehicles are sealed against chemical attack, and individual soldiers are trained in the use of their gas masks.

Perhaps of more concern is the possibility that Saddam will attack Kuwait City - or Israel - in an effort to draw more of the Arab world into the war. Israel refused to retaliate when Saddam attacked it during the gulf war, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has indicated that Israel won't sit idly by if the Iraqi leader attacks again.

"I think U.S. planners expect casualties to be low and have taken numerous steps to reduce the risk," said Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org. "But there remains a finite risk that a successful Iraqi chemical attack on Israel could kill thousands, provoking an Israeli nuclear retaliation that could kill tens of thousands."

Such possibilities prompt some to question the U.S. war plan. Glosson, the retired general, said that in some ways the U.S. war plan maximizes the risks.

U.S. military planners are reluctant to rely too heavily on air power - their greatest strength - because of the possibility of civilian casualties. Glosson said that means America will put its ground forces in harm's way when it doesn't really have to do so.

"The Republican Guard should be obliterated without engaging a ground force," Glosson said. "Starting a ground war offers Saddam the opportunity to begin using chemical weapons. Starting a ground war so early means more allied troops will be injured and killed."

No one doubts, though, that U.S. forces will eventually emerge victorious, and many analysts - including Perle - discount the risks as overblown. Some say that while Saddam might want to use chemical weapons, his soldiers might refuse, knowing that doing so could leave them open to prosecution as war criminals.

"If our air campaign is conducted as brilliantly as the last two campaigns were, with the added capability we have here with the ground forces, I am not worried that we will do this wrong," Perle said.

As for the soldiers themselves, many say that after months in the Kuwaiti desert, they're simply anxious to get the fighting started and finished.

Maj. David Accetta of the V Corps said he recently visited the 3rd Infantry Division - which would lead any invasion into Iraq - and met many troops who were primed for war.

"Right now, if you told those guys to cross the border and kill anybody who didn't look like them, they'd do it," Accetta said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com


Copyright 2003, The Buffalo News