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Iraq: Possible U.S. Attack Likely To Begin With Massive Air War

  • Charles Recknagel

U.S. war plans for Iraq are a secret, but military officials have begun telling reporters that in any possible attack, Washington will seek to stun and shock Iraq's army into submission through a massive initial aerial bombardment. "The New York Times" reports that the Pentagon plans to drop more than 3,000 guided missiles on Iraqi military and government targets in just the first 48 hours of any campaign. RFE/RL looks at the reported U.S. war plan and the strategies behind it.

Prague, 3 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Nobody knows exactly what the Pentagon is planning for Iraq should U.S. President George W. Bush order a war. But the broad outlines of what many experts regard as the likeliest scenario to date have emerged in recent leaks to the American press by U.S. military and government officials.

Those leaks describe a war plan which would unleash overwhelming air strikes upon Iraq in the opening hours of any campaign. The goal would be to cause such shock that the Iraqi military will either mutiny against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or be paralyzed as a fighting force.

"The New York Times" reported yesterday that the U.S. war plan calls for using more than 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles -- including nearly 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles -- in the first 48 hours. Targets would include military headquarters, bases, and communications throughout the country, as well as government centers.

"The New York Times" says, "The initial bombardment would use 10 times the number of precision-guided weapons fired in the first two days of the 1991 Gulf War."

Paul Beaver, an independent defense expert in London, said that the reported U.S. war plan is only one of several scenarios that have been mentioned by the press in past months. But he called it the most likely to date because it is the most in line with current U.S. military strategic thinking. "There will be a number of plans out there and what we've seen and what is being briefed around seems to be the most logical," Beaver said.

He cautioned, however, that the key value in any military planning is flexibility and the current plan could well change in response to new situations.

Beaver said that the current U.S. military strategy is to use massive force to overthrow the Iraqi government while trying to reduce the losses of ordinary Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Such discretion, strategists hope, will result in the Iraqi population viewing the U.S. forces as liberators rather than conquerors when they occupy, and later take key roles in administering, the country.

Beaver said that a primary goal is to "neutralize" rather than destroy the Iraqi Army. He says the Pentagon hopes to use its massive force to persuade Iraqi units to either revolt against the regime or to surrender to U.S.-led troops for use as a stabilization force in Iraq after the war. "[U.S. planners] would want the Iraqi forces to mutiny, certainly they would want them to disappear back home and lay down their arms. The army will be needed for a stabilization force. If Iraq is going to be dealt with properly and we are going to have a stabilized country after Saddam Hussein is gone, then there is no doubt at all we need the army in place in order to do that," he said.

Beaver said he expects some use of air strikes simply to demonstrate to soldiers the futility of fighting for the regime. He said that could be through the dropping of leaflets on troops warning them to surrender, followed by massive strikes if they do not. "I can see the use of demonstration military action -- that is, leaflets followed by military action which will indicate to the Iraqi ground forces that if they want to survive they need to give up and go home. I think we will find that Republican Guard barracks, for example, will be leafleted and then there will be an air strike. Such is the air supremacy that the allies can actually advertise what they are going to do next," Beaver said.

Experts say the allies are able to use massive air power in such highly targeted ways because the precision of aerial weapons has improved some tenfold since the Gulf War. One of the advances is the development of all-weather, satellite-guided bombs which are more accurate than the laser-guided bombs used in 1991. Satellite-guided bombs are not hampered by heavy cloud cover or darkness.

Reuters reported on 2 February that American officials have privately confirmed reports that the U.S. military has already stockpiled some 7,000 satellite-guided bombs in the Persian Gulf region. Some 3,000 laser-guided bombs are also reported stockpiled in the gulf area for use in any extended campaign.

According to the plan leaked to "The New York Times," the air campaign would last less than a week -- unlike the 39 days of bombing that opened the 1991 ground war. And this time, the air phase will be accompanied by almost simultaneous ground operations.

The paper reported that the ground operations would include large-scale offensives into the south and north of Iraq from Kuwait and Turkey. At the same time, small special-forces and airborne units would be dropped deep inside Iraq to seize airfields and oil fields, and prevent Iraqi units from falling back on Baghdad to wage urban warfare.

Experts says the ground strategy reflects Washington's hope that thousands of Iraqi soldiers will choose to surrender to the advancing U.S. troops. That process should be hastened by the use of special-forces units to cut off lines of retreat.

Meanwhile, the preparations for a ground campaign continue to move ahead rapidly in the gulf region. Reuters reported yesterday that following a surge in deployments since the New Year there are now some 100,000 U.S. troops in the area.

The news service quoted U.S. officials as saying privately that the number will be near 180,000 by late February. Much smaller numbers of British and Australian troops are also being deployed to the region.