WASHINGTON — A U.S. attack on Iraq would be a swift, powerful combination of airstrikes and ground assaults aimed at overwhelming Saddam Hussein's defenses and keeping him from mustering catastrophic retaliation, defense officials and outside experts say.
A key goal for the first hours and days of a war would be to keep Saddam from using chemical or biological weapons or prevent him from trying to destroy Iraq's infrastructure, such as oil wells or dams.
"You're going to want to move fast and end it quick," said Andrew Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent defense think tank.
With most of the planning for an Iraq campaign completed, the war's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, spent several days in Washington last week meeting with President Bush and top Pentagon officials. He may move to a U.S. military command center in Qatar soon.
About 150,000 U.S. land, sea and air forces are arrayed on Iraq's periphery, and thousands more are arriving in the days ahead, many of them aboard two more aircraft carriers to join the three already in the area. Many analysts believe that is sufficient for Franks to launch the invasion at any time, although the Bush administration still is pursuing diplomacy at the United Nations.
Military officials and independent experts say speed is imperative if the United States goes to war.
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That means that unlike the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a new attack on Iraq would not rely on airstrikes alone in its first hours and days. Bombing of key targets already identified in Iraq probably would happen at the same time as, or only shortly before, a ground thrust toward Baghdad.
That thrust would be by fast-moving Army or Marine units, probably including not only soldiers in tanks but also lighter units flown in aboard helicopters.
A drive toward Baghdad from the south would be made up of some or all of the tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops massing in Kuwait, about 280 miles from the Iraqi capital. A drive from the north would include troops the United States wants to position in Turkey, hundreds of miles away from both Baghdad and Saddam's hometown stronghold of Tikrit.
Because speed would be an imperative, those ground units would have to rely on aircraft to guard their flanks and rear, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Although the ground and air wars might start at the same time, airstrikes on Baghdad probably would go on for days before ground troops arrived at the capital, Cordesman said.
"You can't move tanks 200 miles overnight," said Cordesman, an expert on Iraq and its military.
To clear the way for that drive to Baghdad, U.S. airstrikes would try to keep Iraqi forces boxed in in small areas. Other American forces would try to persuade Iraqi units to stay in their barracks, and commandos would try to keep Iraqis from sabotaging dams and oil fields, which could slow or stop the U.S. advance.
A major advantage for the United States is the no-fly zone American planes have been patrolling over southern Iraq. Because U.S. planes have had free rein over the zone for more than a decade — and because the zone stretches to the far southern suburbs of Baghdad — Pentagon planners have close-up views of potential targets in that territory and the ability to strike them before a war officially starts.
For example, U.S. planes twice last week bombed an Iraqi missile site near the southern city of Basra that Pentagon officials said threatened U.S. troops in Kuwait.
The U.S. special forces units believed to be operating inside Iraq would help clear the way for the advance, identifying targets for airstrikes and corridors for movement. Other special forces units would try to use tactics such as faked communications to confuse and paralyze Iraqi forces, said Krepinevich, a former Army officer and frequent Pentagon adviser.
Pentagon officials say they would expect extensive use of special operations forces in a war with Iraq, including spotters on the ground to relay coordinates of critical targets to U.S. pilots — a key role such units played in Afghanistan.
"If Saddam would decide he wants to preemptively launch Scuds, the (missile) erector goes up and a 2,000-pound bomb drops on the erector, that would tell Saddam a Scud attack isn't going to happen," said Tim Eads, a former special forces soldier with experience in Iraq. "If he tries to booby trap the oil wells, then the people who are planting explosives get taken out. . . . That's going to cause big-time morale problems in the Iraqi army."
Airstrikes on Iraq, military officials say, will be heavy, punishing and nonstop. While fewer than 10 percent of the bombs dropped during the 1991 Gulf War were precision guided, 80 percent or more of the ordnance dropped on Iraq would be guided by lasers, satellites or video cameras.
Instead of completely destroying Iraq's infrastructure such as electrical systems and factories, the airstrikes probably would be focused on key military and leadership targets, Krepinevich said.
That goal is captured in a Pentagon catch-phrase: "Rapid, decisive operations." The idea is to hit the enemy so hard, so quickly, that physical and psychological resistance is broken almost immediately.
"Will it rely heavily on shock and awe? Yes," Cordesman said. "There will be an attempt to use air power to pin the Iraqi army down, rather than destroy it like during the Gulf War."