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Iraq: Rumsfeld Says U.S., British Forces Now Strong Enough To Attack Iraq

  • Charles Recknagel

The United States says it and Britain now have enough forces in place around Iraq to invade should George W. Bush give the order. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says "ample" U.S. and British troops are in the area, along with dozens of warships and hundreds of aircraft. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the size of the force deployed and some of the likely strategies it will use.

Prague, 21 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says that American and British contingents in the Gulf region now have enough soldiers and weaponry in place to begin a war with Iraq.

The top U.S. defense official refuses to provide estimates of the size of the allied force now deployed around Iraq. But he told reporters yesterday that he would "characterize it as ample."

He said: "We are at the point where, if the [U.S.] president makes that decision [to attack], the Department of Defense is prepared and has the capabilities and the strategy to do that."

The news that U.S. and British troops are now ready for the order to fight comes as U.S. President George W. Bush in recent days has increasingly begun describing his vision of an Iraq after Saddam Hussein is toppled from power.

The American president told a political rally in the U.S. state of Georgia yesterday that a post-Saddam Iraq will be an inspiration for the region: "A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all of the Middle East. Instead of threatening its neighbors, harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both."

But as Rumsfeld and Bush both signal that the U.S. is now fully prepared -- barring a last-minute diplomatic solution -- to attack Iraq, military analysts say the buildup of allied forces will almost certainly continue for several more weeks before any actual campaign begins.

Phillip Mitchell, a ground forces expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the number of American and British combat troops in the region now is about 80,000. (The total number of soldiers, including logistical support forces and air and naval units, is somewhere around 150,000.)

Mitchell calls 80,000 combat troops well short of the some 120,000 soldiers envisioned in most of the Pentagon's war scenarios.

"What the U.K. has in place at the moment is no more than the Marine commando brigade and probably elements of the air assault brigade, and [even] when you take the logistics troops into consideration, [the British] probably have no more than 8,000 troops out there," Mitchell said. "The U.S. ground forces are probably no more than...that is, ground forces plus Marines, probably around about 80,000."

He continues: "The [most likely war] scenario remains that one is looking at certainly well over 100,000 [soldiers] in terms of troops being located in Kuwait and the northern thrust through Turkey. So I think we are talking of perhaps 120,000 to 130,000 [combat] troops in total."

The military expert says that planners would consider the 80,000 combat troops now in place as adequate for an attack only if they envision a campaign that has a "rolling start" -- that is, one which progressively brings more ground forces into the region as operations proceed. But the Pentagon has given no indication it plans such a strategy.

Instead, most U.S. plans leaked to the press suggest the military wants to immediately overwhelm Iraqi forces with a massive assault, rather than fight an extended campaign in which casualties mount.

The "The New York Times" reported earlier this month that the Pentagon's war plan calls for unleashing 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles against Iraqi military and government targets in the first 48 hours of the air campaign to stagger and isolate Iraqi military units.

According to that plan, ground troops would attack during or immediately following the air campaign from the south and north. Airborne units would simultaneously secure central areas in a strategy known as "vertical envelopment," surrounding the enemy from numerous directions at once.

Mitchell says U.S. and British planners do not envision a final battle for Baghdad, as some press reports have speculated might occur: "There would be air assaults and amphibious assaults in the south to take Basra, and air assaults followed by mechanized troops in the north to take control of the oil fields. They will probably avoid going into Baghdad and just cut it off and then say to the Iraqis, 'Well, here we are. What are you going to do?' "

Mitchell says the intent of cutting off Baghdad would be to promote an internal coup against Saddam and avoid the heavy losses urban fighting inflicts on both civilians and attacking forces.

As talk of war mounts, the U.S. and British continue to deploy troops to the region. Britain has said it will send up to a total of 42,000 soldiers to the Gulf. An additional 50,000 more U.S. soldiers are expected to arrive there by the end of this month. The force massing around Iraq also includes six aircraft carriers -- five American and one British -- with a total of more than 500 warplanes.

The deployment of troops has been complicated by uncertainty over whether Turkey will allow large numbers of American troops to move through its territory into northern Iraq. Ankara has said its parliamentary approval will depend upon the terms of U.S. economic aid to Turkey to compensate for losses from a war with Iraq, and upon assurances that Turkey's regional security interests will be adequately protected.

With the buildup still under way, some observers say Rumsfeld's remarks yesterday may have been intended more as a political message to Baghdad that time is running out than as any suggestion that combat could begin immediately.

U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Iraq that it must fully and quickly disarm in cooperation with UN weapons inspectors or face the use of force.

Bush has said that Baghdad is seeking to deceive the UN and that arms inspections cannot be extended indefinitely. He also has said that a U.S. decision on using force is weeks, not months, away.