San Francisco Chronicle January 18, 2003
February in Iraq suits U.S. troops
Cool days best if hot, heavy gear needed
If there's going to be a war in Iraq -- and that's still a big if -- the smart money says it will come in late February. Early March at the latest.
An attack is still weeks away, at least, defense analysts say, because the United States is in the process of sending 62,000 more troops to the region, bringing the total force to about 120,000 by mid-February. The Department of Defense has indicated that 250,000 troops would be the minimum necessary to launch an invasion.
But the United States is working against time, experts say. There is a window of opportunity, during which conditions would benefit U.S. forces on the battlefield. It starts with readiness, which slowly erodes as troops idle away the time on ships in the Persian Gulf or in dusty tents in the Kuwaiti desert.
Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor said he thinks an attack is imminent. The buildup of U.S. forces is strong and steady, and unless Saddam Hussein gives up power, he believes President Bush is likely to launch an attack.
"I think the administration would suffer a severe defeat on the international scene if they back off and the U.S. is seen to be full of bluff and a paper tiger," Trainor said.
"I don't think President Bush has crossed the Rubicon yet, but he's certainly on the shore."
An important factor in U.S. war planners' decision making is the weather in the Iraqi desert. Temperatures there range from the 30s to the 60s now. But every day it gets warmer. By May, the highs can go into the 90s. Even in April, the temperature is in the 80s.
That's not bad when you're in a cotton uniform and running around the desert, but if you have to put on a chemical/biological protective suit, it can suddenly be heavy, hot and stifling.
"Chemical protective gear can't be credibly worn in the heat except for a very short time," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution. "At 85 degrees, you can fight for an hour. I'd say the time to do this (attack) would be February or March."
CHEMICAL DEFENSE LIKELY
It is widely assumed that Iraq would use chemical weapons if the United States attacks and appears likely to defeat the Iraqis.
"That's their only ace in the hole," said Patrick Garrett, a defense analyst with the organization GlobalSecurity.org. "If the regime falls, that would be the last act of desperation."
Trainor, now an author and military consultant, said Iraq has chemical weapons and the means to launch them against allied forces.
The chemical protective gear carried by Marines and soldiers consists of a gas mask whose rubber hood covers the head and shoulders, and a rubber suit, gloves and boots. It's known as MOPP, for Military Oriented Protective Posture.
And it's hot inside the suit. Still, troops train in that gear consistently at the U.S. bases in the California desert -- the Army at Fort Irwin, not far from Death Valley, and the Marines at Twentynine Palms, an hour from Palm Springs.
Marine Capt. Robert Crum, a former infantry commander who is now a spokesman at Twentynine Palms, said the protective suits are not comfortable, but Marines can fight in them, even in the dead of summer.
"When you first put it on, it gets pretty warm," he said. "But you get used to it after a while. The important thing is to have good leadership. You've got to keep an eye on your people and make sure they get enough water."
Crum said the heat, and difficulties of fighting in protective gear, are simply factors in the overall strategy of war. What affects U.S. forces also affects Iraqi troops, he pointed out. If the Iraqis use chemical devices, that gas will spread over the battlefield. If American troops have superior protective equipment, he said, a gas attack might do more harm to the opposing forces, and that could, in fact, become part of U.S. strategy.
Trainor said he did not think weather in Iraq would necessarily affect U.S. decision making. Weather is simply a factor in war planning, he said. It might require better logistics, resupply of troops and equipment. But it probably wouldn't be the kind of thing that would prompt an invasion prematurely.
And there are other factors, outside of the political issues, that could influence the timing of an attack. In about 10 days, Muslims from around the world will begin their annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj.
Attacking a Muslim country at such a time could cause problems in other Muslim countries, including those that support the United States.
Garrett said much depends on whether the United States has full support of the United Nations for taking military action. If so, and if it is not seen as simple appeasement to the Americans, the timing won't matter.
"People will go to the street and make noise," he said, "but it won't be enough to stop the war."
It might not matter. The hajj goes on for the first couple of weeks of February. And that's the time when U.S. forces will be arriving in the region, training and getting acclimated.
Defense experts said it would take at least another couple of weeks to get the forces in place and ready to fight.
At the same time, they said, a ready force has a short shelf life. Equipment starts to break down over time; troops get restless and lose their edge if they're sitting on ships for weeks at a time. Aircraft carriers and their support ships need to be cycled in and out of the area, so they can go through their own maintenance and deploy to other problem areas of the world.
Which is why, when pressed about a war starting, analysts say it will be soon, if at all.
"The dark of the moon is on the third of March," Trainor said. "If you want to take advantage of the darkness, that would be a perfect time."
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