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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

U.S. News & World Report March 24, 2003

The troops are set, but will a war go as planned?

By Mark Mazzetti; Julian E. Barnes; Kit R. Roane; Joellen Perry

NORTHERN KUWAITI DESERT--Paratroopers do not pack up their equipment unless they are getting ready to jump. The process is too numbingly laborious: rigging jeeps, humvees, and artillery pieces with parachutes and readying them to be dropped from cargo planes in the black of night. So there may be no more telling indicator of impending war than the 82nd Airborne Division's sweaty soldiers working around the clock to rig their equipment for what could be the most dangerous jump of their lives.

Their backbreaking work is critical. If the weapons aren't safely at the drop zone by the time the paratroopers touch Iraqi soil minutes later, they will stand little chance against Iraqi troops waiting to kill American soldiers falling from the sky. The 82nd trains to seize enemy airfields, and commanding officer Maj. Gen. Chuck Swannack and his intelligence staff have spent weeks poring over the key strategic airfields his troops might secure in the opening hours of an Iraq invasion. But in the end, they know they could be asked to drop anywhere. "In the desert," says Swannack, "pretty much anything you look at is a drop zone."

The tens of thousands of troops now positioned within sight of Iraqi soil are not likely to know when diplomacy has run its course. They will be running through their final gear check, writing what could be their last letters home, and praying for courage. Despite all their training, most expect they are going to need it.

Ready firepower. After months of wrangling, the plan for the military invasion of Iraq is largely in place. In keeping with military tradition, of course, much of it could be scrapped within hours of the war's beginning, and officials from across the intelligence and military apparatus are still negotiating backup plans and massaging the final target lists during daily video teleconferences. Yet the pieces are in place. "Never in the history of the world has there been this much firepower all in one place," says Rear Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Navy's Cruiser Destroyer Group 1, part of the giant naval armada now amassed in the waters south of Iraq. "If we're ordered to go forward, [the war] will be lightning quick."

For war planners, the biggest wild card is how much of Saddam's military will actually stand and fight. The most optimistic commanders believe that years of deprivation and repression by the Iraqi regime have fostered a hatred for Saddam within the professional military. They say only fear keeps Iraqi soldiers in line, a fear that will dissipate once U.S. and British forces move to depose Saddam. The Iraqi regular Army, which totals just 23 divisions, compared with 70 before Operation Desert Storm, is saddled with the dregs of the country's military equipment and rarely conducts live-fire training. Against these troops, war planners don't expect a military fight of any substance.

Taking on Iraq's six Republican Guard divisions could be a more difficult mission. Saddam has preserved the strength of his Republican Guard largely by supplying them with stolen Kuwaiti military equipment, and they are still the best-trained and equipped professional military forces in Iraq. Yet the U.S. intel-ligence community has assessed that support for Saddam is weak even among these troops. The ruling Baath Party has planted spies from the Special Security Organization in each Republican Guard unit, similar to the KGB "political officers" who used to accompany all Soviet military forces. This has bred animosity in the ranks. "Saddam doesn't trust the military," says one U.S. intelligence official. "He has to rely on the Republican Guard, but that doesn't mean he trusts them."

Urban battlefield. The Republican Guard units surrounding Baghdad may be armed with chemical weapons, American military planners believe, and the intelligence assessment is that they might use them to cover a retreat. Saddam used such tactics in his war against Iran, when Iraqi troops took advantage of an Iranian Army weakened from a chemical attack to retake lost ground. The expectation is that the Republican Guard may pull back to Baghdad for a final battle. If so, they would be bolstering Saddam's Special Republican Guard, a force of 12,500 that protects the Baath Party and could be fearsome in any urban battle for control of the capital. Even if the march to Baghdad is relatively swift, top U.S. commanders worry that the final chapter in the invasion of Iraq could be a bloody one.

To mitigate the chances of Saddam's forces using chemical weapons, the Pentagon has coupled its naval aircraft patrols of Iraq's southern no-fly zone with a stepped up psychological-operations campaign. "About 5 percent of our missions have been leafleting," says USS Constellation Capt. John Miller of the nearly 5 million leaflets dropped on Iraq since December. During one recent night mission, planes dropped two "Rockeye" bomb canisters of 60,000 leaflets each on southern Iraq. The menacing leaflets depict several men in gas masks against the backdrop of a towering, mushroom-shaped flame. A warning in Arabic reads: "Any unit that uses weapons of mass destruction faces swift and severe retribution by coalition forces."

Even with a complement of British troops, it would be a surprisingly light force invading Iraq. The final war plan is the result of months of back and forth between the brass at Central Command and the Pentagon's civilian leadership, which advocated an operation with fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops. Gen. Tommy Franks and his staff prevailed, and the invasion force has grown to more than 200,000. Yet Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has still managed to keep the "footprint" of heavy armor down, with only one heavy Army division (the 3rd Infantry) and one Marine division of roughly 20,000 infantrymen leading the assault force from the south.

The aim is for delicacy, or at least as much delicacy as thousands of heavily armed teenagers can muster. After a short but punishing air campaign, the Pentagon hopes to inflict as little damage as possible on Iraq's civilians and infrastructure. Even hotshot Marine pilots speak as if they had just graduated from sensitivity training. "This is different than other wars. It is about regime change, not about destroying things," says Lt. Col. Scott Parmarico, deputy carrier air group commander on the Marine ship USS Bataan. "We want them to have an economy that functions, an infrastructure that functions, and a country that functions."

"Spare the weak." Such tactics are the result in part of intense lobbying by British commanders, who bristle at the Pentagon's "shock and awe" rhetoric and have succeeded in dialing back the intensity of an allied assault. Lt. Col. Jamie Martin, the top British liaison officer to the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, quotes Virgil: "Spare the weak and disarm the strong." In other words, the less damage done in the operations phase, the easier it will be to pick up the pieces in the aftermath.

More than 25,000 British infantrymen, paratroopers, and tank drivers are supplementing U.S. forces in Kuwait, dispatched to the desert to demonstrate Prime Minister Tony Blair's resolve to depose Saddam Hussein. With a majority of the British public against the war, though, top British commanders have sought a low profile for their troops. "It is safe to say that in proportional terms we are the junior partner to the Americans," quips Gen. Mike Jackson, chief of the general staff of the British Army.

Yet unlike Britain's limited contribution in Afghanistan, British forces have been given a featured role this time. The 3rd Commando Brigade of Britain's Royal Marines is expected to cross the border to gain control of Iraq's "southern box," including the strategically critical city of Basra. For the British, it will be a return to a former imperial outpost: The last garrison of British forces left Basra in 1958, and the troops returning to Iraq understand the historical significance of their mission. According to one British official, the United Kingdom forces have plans to clean up and reconsecrate the British military cemeteries in Basra, where their predecessors fell defending the British Empire.

The British marines are expected to remain in Basra once the city is secure. How Basra is taken is important for symbolic as much as military reasons. Even as U.S. troops march on Baghdad, the British are expected to begin humanitarian missions. "We will transition very easily from war fighting into peacekeeping," says a senior British military official.

War planners hope this will send a message to forces defending Baghdad that the invaders intend to rid Iraq of Saddam's regime without destroying the country. The humanitarian phase will coincide with an equally critical peacekeeping effort, as U.S. commanders fear that an end to Baath Party control could spark revenge killings that leave thousands of Iraqi civilians dead.

Desert dullness. With three aircraft carriers steaming in the Persian Gulf, the Navy has begun mounting round-the-clock patrols below the 33rd parallel. On average, the USS Constellation alone dispatches over 100 sorties a night. Below the Constellation's deck, six armored storage rooms deep in the ship's belly are stocked with the latest armaments. Row after row of JDAMs, or Joint Direct Attack Munitions--the 2,000-pound, cigar-shaped monsters that gained fame in Afghanistan--line the magazine shelves, their yellow-striped noses pointing outward.

The frontline troops are clearly poised for battle, yet the long days in the desert have taken their toll on some of the forces in Kuwait. For many soldiers, the final countdown to war couldn't come too soon. At a lonely outpost called Scarab Corner on the perimeter of Camp Arifjan, the main U.S. logistics hub, some soldiers pass the time with games of "Survivor: Kuwait"--they run physical challenges, then vote one another "off the island." But in the end, of course, nobody actually gets to go anywhere.

Yet what mostly concerns the soldiers and marines is not boredom, nor the punishing sandstorms that signal the approaching summer heat, but uncertainty about the mission before them. They express no doubts about their weapons or about those who will be fighting next to them. The real question is what Saddam has planned for them--the man who keeps his intentions bottled up behind his mustachioed visage.

A plan for war

If President Bush gives the order, U.S. military forces are prepared to execute an invasion of Iraq that combines intense bombing of military targets and a fast-moving ground offensive by the American forces massed in Kuwait. U.S. planners hope a high-speed, high-tech offensive would lead to the quick collapse of Iraqi resistance. But officials also note that any war is unpredictable and that war plans often change once the shooting starts.

[Map is not available]

5th Corps
Kurdish Autonomous Region
1st Corps
Oil pipeline
2nd Corps
Al Mansuriyah
Al Fallujah
Arar, Saudi Arabia
As Suwayrah
Al Kut
4th Corps
Tigris River
Oil pipeline
An Nasiriyah
Euphrates River
Al Amarah
3rd Corps
Saudi Arabia
Persian Gulf

Turkish troops move in from the north to temporarily claim territory and deal with Iraqi refugees.
Area controlled by terrorist Ansar al-Islam, Iran
Bombing flights may cross Turkish airspace from U.S. aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea.
The 82nd Airborne Division seizes Iraqi airfields.
Special operations teams in Iraq's western desert hunt Scud missiles that could strike Israel.
Heavy bombing targets Baghdad and Tikrit, Saddam's home town.
Special operations teams, staging at a Saudi airbase in Arar, hunt missiles in southern Iraq that could threaten Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and also stand ready to conduct search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. aircrews.
The 101st Airborne Division flies from Kuwait to northern Iraq since Turkey has not allowed the U.S. 4th Infantry Division to transit its territory. Transport helicopters need to stop for refueling, perhaps at Iraqi airfields captured by the 82nd Airborne Division.
British Royal Marines take control of Basra and Iraq's southern oil fields.
Stealth bombers operating from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean strike Baghdad and other targets.
Air attacks, including cruise missile strikes, would come from U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.

U.S. Forces:
U.S. Marines
U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division
101st Airborne Division

Iraqi Forces and Facilities
Republican Guard division
Republican Guard tank division
Infantry division
Infantry tank division
Major army bases
Major air bases

Oil refineries

Oil pipelines

Area of Kurdish population
Kurdish autonomous region

Oil fields

Psychological operations

This leaflet says: "Surface-to-surface missiles have been targeted for destruction." The back warns: "For your safety, abandon your weapons systems. Whether manned or unmanned, these weapons systems will be destroyed."
Airdrops of such leaflets in southern Iraq are intended to demoralize regular Iraqi troops and encourage them to flee, reducing bloodshed and the need to contain thousands of prisoners of war.

[Inset map]
Mediterranean Sea
Carriers USS Harry S. Truman, USS Theodore Roosevelt
Red Sea
Saudi Arabia
Persian Gulf
Carriers USS Constellation, USS Abraham Lincoln, USS Kitty Hawk
Arabian Sea
Major Bases Used by U.S. Forces


The biggest fear of U.S. intelligence officials is that Iraq could use chemical or biological weapons against U.S. troops or Iraqi civilians. But Iraq could also employ a variety of other strategies, such as torching its own oil wells or deploying human shields, to try to slow a U.S. advance. Other possible tactics, according to U.S. defense intelligence reports:

1. OIL TRENCHES: U.S. defense officials say that Iraq has dug hundreds of pits and filled them with oil, largely around Baghdad but also in Kirkuk and Mosul. Smoke from oil fires could obscure some satellites and interfere with laser- and heat-guided weapons.

2. ELECTRIC SHOCK: Iraq could run electricity into swamp areas, rivers or waterfront areas and/or create wet areas that carry electric currents. Iraq used this tactic against Iranians.

3. DIRTY BOMBS: In the last war, Iraqi forces stole medical radiation materials from Kuwait, suggesting an interest in creating a device to disperse harmful radiation.

4. POISONED OIL PIPELINE: Used by Iran against Iraqi forces. Iraq could drain oil from pipelines, punch holes in them, then send poison gas through them when enemy troops are nearby (or downwind).

5. TARGET CHOPPERS: While Iraq's air defenses have been degraded, it still possesses surface-to-air missiles that could threaten helicopters.

Sources: GlobalSecurity.org; International Institute for Strategic Studies; Mountain High Maps


The conflict with Iraq: exclusive frontline reports from U.S. News
With U.S. ground forces
At U.S. Central Command in Qatar
In northern Iraq
Aboard the USS Constellation


GRAPHIC: Picture, Desert baptism: soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON--VII FOR USN&WR); Map, A Plan For War (GlobalSecurity.org, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mountain High Maps; Stephen Rountree, Rob Cady--USN&WR); Picture, Psychological operations (leaflet); Picture, FEARFUL. In the back seats of an SUV, a family flees to a Kurdish-controlled area. (RICHARD SENNOTT--MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE / ZUMA)

Copyright 2003, U.S. News & World Report