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U.S.: Washington Hopes Psychological Warfare Will Hasten Victory In Iraq

  • Jeffrey Donovan

As Washington readies its forces for war in Iraq, a quiet military effort is already under way that is aimed at persuading Iraq's senior military officials to refrain from fighting U.S. and British soldiers. As RFE/RL reports, a quick and "clean" conflict may hinge on the success of the United States' psychological-warfare campaign.

Washington, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Is the pen mightier than the sword? U.S. war planners hope so.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. and British troops and thousands of tanks, jet fighters, bombs, and missiles may be set to strike Iraq in hours in a bid to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But a different kind of war -- one fought with words, not bombs -- is already under way as U.S. military commanders seek to persuade Iraqi officers that resistance is futile and that they and their families can have a better future simply by surrendering.

Kenneth Allard, a former U.S. Army intelligence official, is an analyst at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. Allard told RFE/RL that the U.S. psychological-operations campaign (psy-ops) is a key part of a U.S. strategy aimed at minimizing civilian victims, as well as military casualties on both sides. "Right now, there is a very serious question about the unity of the Iraqi military and their loyalty to Saddam Hussein. Psychological warfare gives us an enormous edge in exploiting the differences that we know are there and doing everything we possibly can to widen them," Allard said.

U.S. President George W. Bush, issuing an ultimatum on the night of 17 March for Hussein and his two sons to leave Iraq or face war, fired his own shot in the psy-ops campaign when he made a direct appeal to Iraqi military leaders. "I urge every member of the Iraqi military and intelligence services: If war comes, do not fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life. And all Iraqi military and civilian personnel should listen carefully to this warning: In any conflict, your fate will depend on your action," Bush said.

Besides such direct messages from Bush, U.S. officials say they are using e-mail, phone calls, and intermediaries such as Iraqi defectors to contact Iraqi officers and persuade them not to fight.

These so-called capitulation agreements, according to U.S. media reports, would avoid the massive logistical problem of taking thousands of Iraqi prisoners by allowing Iraqi officers and their troops to return to their barracks in exchange for turning over most of their weapons and vowing to keep out of the war.

The agreements would also allow the U.S. military to avoid having to confront Iraqi units, the likely result of which would be huge casualties for Baghdad's forces. Likewise, their quick capitulation would hasten Hussein's fall and the war's end.

Raymond Tanter, an expert on terrorism and rogue regimes, told RFE/RL that to some extent the model for this part of the U.S. campaign is Afghanistan, where Washington offered financial and other incentives to factional commanders and warlords in exchange for their support in last year's war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. "If Iraqi generals and others in the leadership of the regular army cooperate, they're probably being promised cash, as well as all kinds of other incentives for defecting from Saddam and joining the coalition of the willing," Tanter said.

But if they're being offered cash for cooperation, Baghdad's military leaders are also being threatened with severe consequences if they use chemical or biological weapons -- the worst nightmare for U.S. war planners.

Allard made this observation: "There's literally no better way to make sure that they understand the nature of this game and that we know who they are and frankly have the ability to follow them very much into the post-Saddam world than simply by saying: 'Oh, hello. How are you?' [And then they ask,] 'How did you get my cell-phone number?' [And we say,] 'Don't ask, but it's terribly important that you listen to what we're going to tell you next.'"

Bush picked up on that theme in his televised address on 17 March. He urged Iraqis not to use weapons of mass destruction or to blow up oil wells, which he called the treasure of the Iraqi people. "Do not obey any command to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, including the Iraqi people. War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, 'I was just following orders,'" Bush said.

Washington has also sought to communicate that message and others in a campaign focused on the written word and photographs.

For months, but with increasing intensity in recent days, the United States has been "bombing" southern Iraq with leaflets urging people to stay home and not fight invading U.S. "liberators." One leaflet shows a picture of Hussein in an expensive suit beside a poor Iraqi mother and child. It says, "He lives in splendor as your family struggles to survive." Another, showing a photo of a burning Kuwaiti oil well from the 1991 Gulf War, says, "If the oil industry is destroyed, your livelihood will be RUINED!"

Allard and Tanter both agree that the duration of the war and the number of casualties on all sides depends to a large extent on the success or failure of Washington's psychological-warfare campaign.

If the pen proves mightier than sword, then peace and reconstruction could soon be at hand.

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