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The International Herald Tribune March 21, 2003

With any delays come bigger risks

By Joseph Fitchett

For its campaign to wrest Iraq from the regime of Saddam Hussein, the United States has assembled a force with more firepower than ever seen before in a single battle.

Apparently poised for simultaneous air and ground strikes to seize control of the country, the United States withheld its promised crushing initial blow Thursday to launch cruise missiles aimed at killing the Iraqi leadership in Baghdad.

"Decapitating the regime," the aim of the cruise missile attacks, according to a U.S. official, reflected the overall U.S. strategy of seeking the Iraqi regime's collapse from within. If key Saddam loyalists were physically eliminated by the U.S. air strikes, the effect could be expected to encourage other Iraqi military commanders and political leaders to seek ways of abandoning Saddam and switching sides. Meanwhile, U.S. armed forces, notably the 3d Infantry Division, with 350 tanks, was reportedly poised to head north from Kuwait for Baghdad, 560 kilometers (350 miles) across desert flats that U.S. planners expect to be defended lightly or not at all.

Rarely in history has the ultimate question in a war victory appeared to turn so supremely on the question of speed in determining the outcome on the battlefield.

"The fulcrum of this war is time: The United States needs to get Iraqis to stop fighting quickly and Saddam wants the conflict to drag out long enough to pile up casualties and images of destruction," according to John Pike, head of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based think tank on warfare.

President George W. Bush sought to play down the widespread expectations of a quick timetable when he warned Americans that the struggle could be more prolonged and more costly than many Americans had been led to believe.

But privately, administration officials confirmed the analysis of the need for speed in the U.S. offensive. "Every day will add casualties and also risks of real or fabricated atrocities that will fuel anti-American resentment in Iraq and among Arabs and Muslims generally," a Pentagon adviser said.

To deliver this shock to the Iraqi system, the United States broke with recent military caution by launching the campaign with an early start for ground forces combined with an air assault that the Pentagon hopes will paralyze Iraqi resistance.

Although the numbers of U.S. attack planes, warships and tanks were dwarfed by the huge forces engaged in World War II, their combined battlefield capabilities, in terms of finding and destroying targets around the clock in almost any weather, appeared to more than match the effective firepower of any force assembled for any previous battle.

"We're going to see how much technology can do because this time we're going to combine ultra-smart airpower with U.S. boots and tanks on the ground," according to a specialist in military modernization at the Pentagon.

The U.S. air armada more than 500 planes, including dozens of Stealth bombers and giant B-52s packs unprecedented lethality because of the accuracy of its electronically guided bombs and missiles.

Nearly 90 percent of the ordnance to be fired in this campaign consists of precision-guided munitions, in contrast to 10 percent of the missiles available in the 1991 Gulf War.

Even before the threatened nationwide air attacks started, Marine units were reported opening a corridor for the 15,000-member 3d Infantry Division to cross from Kuwait, with its lead units of Abrams heavy tanks perhaps able to reach the outskirts of Baghdad sometime during the weekend. British forces, the only major non-U.S. force invading Iraq, were said to have orders to head northeast from Kuwait within hours in hopes of seizing Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq, whose population, of Shiite Muslims, resents the Baghdad regime.

In the north, near the strategic oil fields of Kirkuk, the United States was reportedly planning to send paratroopers to small airfields in Kurdish-held areas to prepare the way for a larger airlift.

The U.S. war plan also relies heavily on the effectiveness of special forces, commandos in teams of a few men who have infiltrated Iraqi-held territory to locate and neutralize secret depots of chemical or biological weapons and the mobile Scud missiles that might be able to deliver mass-destruction warheads against Israel or, even easier, against Kuwait and U.S. forces' staging areas there.

This combination high-tech missile strikes paralyzing resistance, special forces spotting targets and seizing key points on the ground and U.S. and British battle tanks charging toward Iraq's main cities aims at seizing control of the country in a matter of days.

The plan, with its emphasis on speed, contains real military risks, notably, exposure to casualties among troops encountering Iraqi units not decimated in advance by airpower.

"Few armies have gone into battle expecting so strongly that the other side will change sides," according to James Steinberg, director of studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration, said that a "presumption" prevails among U.S. planners that most Iraqi troops will not fight the invading forces and that any significant organized resistance can be contained and destroyed by U.S. firepower.

Agreeing with this analysis, on condition that he not be identified, a Bush administration official said, "Once the fear factor vanishes with clear evidence of the regime's demise, any loyalty will be abandoned in favor of revenge or rallying to a new situation."

A fast time sequence will be crucial to this scenario, other specialists agreed, explaining that the longer the fighting continues, the more casualties seem bound to mount. Similarly, an swift-moving offensive would increase the chances of capturing Iraq's oil wells, main bridges and other key infrastructure intact, affording a prospect of economic recovery that could incite Iraqis to switch sides.

What is fast in this war? That depends, according to Patrick Garrett, an analyst at Pike's center who specializes in military operations. "It's two days to Baghdad for the first tanks if you're General Patton and four days if you're a classically conservative field commander," he said.

That difference in views reportedly is reflected in the team running the U.S. war, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pressing for speed and the field commander, General Tommy Franks, taking a more systematic military approach to reducing the enemy.


Copyright 2003, International Herald Tribune