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Boston Globe October 1, 2002

Psychological warfare is part of US strategy

By Robert Schlesinger

WASHINGTON - US forces possess a variety of defenses against chemical and biological weapons, from protective gear and new decontamination equipment to improved early warning capabilities and new-generation Patriot missiles. But in the event of a war with Iraq, the military's first response will consist of a barrage of words, not metal.

Pentagon strategists are mapping out a coordinated message blitz to be delivered to Iraqi troops in the field: Obeying an order to unleash these attacks will result in your sure destruction.

''There are an awful lot of people who aren't very pleased with the Saddam Hussein regime, and he has to use some of those people to use weapons of mass destruction,'' Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. ''We would have to make very clear to them that what we are concerned about in Iraq is the Saddam Hussein regime, and the regime is not all the soldiers and it's not all the people.''

The defense secretary added, ''If he says `Go,' the people he says `Go' to better think carefully about whether that's how they want to handle their lives.''

US officials believe that Iraq's stockpile of weapons of mass destruction could include highly toxic VX nerve gas, mustard gas, weaponized anthrax, and perhaps smallpox. Before the Gulf War in 1991, then-Secretary of State James Baker bluntly warned the Iraqi government that any use of such weapons would result in a catastrophic response. But that conflict was aimed at dislodging Iraq from Kuwait, while the next war could threaten the regime's very existence. In such circumstances, a similar threat may not deter Baghdad.

''If Saddam's regime and very survival are threatened, then his view of interests may be profoundly altered,'' Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said in a speech Friday. ''He may decide he has nothing to lose by using weapons of mass destruction.''

Military planners are hoping that calculation is not shared by lower-level Iraqi soldiers and officers who actually pull the trigger. If they cooperate - by sitting the war out or surrendering their weapons to allied forces - they can survive. But if they let loose their deadly weaponry, they will be singled out for retaliatory attacks, or hunted down as war criminals should they escape.

Defense Department officials confirm that planning is underway about how to direct Rumsfeld's message to Iraqis, but they decline to discuss specifics. ''We do have the ability to spread the word far and wide,'' said Chet Justice, spokesman for the Department of Defense's Special Operations Command.

The US Army's Fourth Psychological Operations Group, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., would take the lead in planning the operation. This group planned and helped execute the similar operations during the Gulf War, the conflict in Kosovo, and the Afghan battles. The military will combine high-visibility means like radio broadcasts and pamphlet drops with secret contacts via Iraqi dissidents in Iraq.

''Whether Iraqi opposition groups would carry the message forward into the outreaches they have, or whether teams on the ground... no matter where they're from, would have any interaction with Iraqi personnel, those messages can be conveyed several ways,'' said a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''You would use every single way possible to try to blanket and try to stunt behavior.''

There are indications that some contacts have already begun.

''They are working with the Iraqi opposition,'' said Danielle Pletka, a former staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee currently at the American Enterprise Institute. ''They are working with the contacts the Iraqi opposition has on the ground in Iraq to make very clear what our message is.''

Success will depend not only on conveying the threat of doom brought on by participation in chemical or biological attacks, specialists say, but also in making clear that not every Iraqi soldier would be a specific target of forceful retaliation.

''If the US government says, `This is my list,' then anyone who is not on that list is going to assume that they are safe, so why would he risk his life?'' said Muhannad Eshaiker of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, an opposition group based in California.

The extent to which that message will be heeded remains a critical unknown.

''It's a calculation that's impossible to make, frankly,'' said Ian Cuthbertson, director of the Counter-Terrorism Project at the World Policy Institute.

While most military analysts believe that the bulk of the Iraqi armed forces - ill-equipped, unhappy conscripts - would fold quickly under an American attack, control of the chemical or biological weapons is probably in the hands of the more loyal, specialized Republican Guard, the elite Special Republican Guard, or Hussein's private security forces. Their morale is better, and they are expected to be more willing to put up a fight, but some could still be susceptible to psychological operations.

They might not have a lot of time to make up their minds. A report released by the British government noted that chemical or biological weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order being given.

Even a few steadfastly loyal cadres in the right places, enforcing discipline on other units, could make a tragic difference.

''If faced with the choice of either being shot by one of Saddam's guys right now vs. a lifetime vacation at Guantanamo, they'll fire,'' said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense research organization.

During the Gulf War, the United States dropped millions of pamphlets encouraging Iraqi soldiers to surrender or desert their posts. One well-known leaflet showed an image of a B-52 bomber dropping bombs with the inscription, ''The 16th Infantry Division of the Iraqi army will be bombed tomorrow. Leave this location now and save yourselves.''

Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops surrendered during that conflict, but it is impossible to say how much they were influenced by the paper, as opposed to the metal, falling from the sky.

Robert Schlesinger can be reached by e-mail at schlesinger@globe.com.

This story ran on page A22 of the Boston Globe on 10/1/2002.


Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.