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US Forces Will Prevail in Iraqi Conflict, say Pentagon Officials - 2003-03-04

If U.S. forces go to war with Iraq, senior Pentagon officials are confident they will prevail. But, military experts are not minimizing the potential danger.

In the 1991 Gulf War, it took U.S. forces just days to destroy or rout Iraq's military. American combat losses numbered fewer than 150. This time, Pentagon planners hope for a similar quick and decisive victory if President Bush orders an attack.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not taking anything for granted. "Any war is a dangerous thing and it puts peoples lives at risk," he said.

The main uncertainties involve the principal reasons for a war, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. In setting about to disarm Iraq of such weapons, will U.S. forces have to risk possible chemical or biological attack?

A former top Iraqi military official who defected in 1986, General Fawzi Al-Shamari, says Saddam Hussein spent millions to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

"He buys them to use them and he will use them," he said. "If he has the opportunity, he will use them."

But Iraq has few viable options for delivering chemical or biological weapons at a distance so as not to endanger its own troops says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst and former senior U.S. defense official.

"It's hard to fight with biological weapons and chemical weapons when you're restricted to line of sight," he said. "It's hard to fight against an enemy that can maneuver much more quickly that you can, which can use attack helicopters and assault helicopters, rather than bringing ground forces into the area. So this is a real threat, but it's not one where the United States doesn't have counter-measures and a lot of advantages which can offset what Saddam Husseins troops can do."

Among the advantages: Pentagon planners are reported to have secret weapons to prevent the release of toxic substances.

U.S. forces might also use new, so-called bunker buster bombs intended to penetrate buried or heavily protected chemical or biological storage containers and incinerate them.

Such technological advances, along with America's almost certain and instant air superiority over Iraq, are expected to demoralize Iraqi troops. And despite public displays of Iraq's military readiness, U.S. superiority may be one reason many Iraqi soldiers will not fight, says General Al-Shamari.

"The Iraqis wont fight for two reasons," he said. "First, because they don't believe in Saddam Hussein and he insulted their Army and he insulted them in many battles because he didn't do the right calculations. Second, because they understand the superiority of the United States in technology and firepower."

Even if he his own troops abandoned him, some Pentagon intelligence experts and others fear the Iraqi leader plans to cripple his own country. He could burn Iraq's rich oilfields, as he did in Kuwait in 1991, creating an economic and environmental disaster.

"I have no doubt Saddam would try every way possible to inflict as much devastation on Iraqi people and the rest of the world, especially on the Iraqi people, and to blame the Americans for doing it," said Intifadh Qanbar, a leading member of the exiled Iraqi opposition.

But Iraqis may not tolerate that, suggests military analyst Anthony Cordesman.

"If Saddam blows the oil fields, it isn't the United States and Britain that will be remembered for it, its Saddam Hussein," he said. "And the physical evidence, because there are hundreds of wells and many oil fields, is going to be all over the country, along with hundreds of Iraqis that are going to know the details."

Still, Iraq has a large military force, some 380,000 men. And despite its losses in the first Gulf War, it has more than 2,000 tanks plus thousands of other armored vehicles and artillery pieces. Admittedly, it has only a small Air Force but it has upgraded its air defenses, including its surface-to-air missiles.

So what is the Iraqi militarys most effective strategy for fighting any U.S.-led war? Baghdad's best option will be urban warfare says Anthony Cordesman.

"Ideally their only way to really have high levels of casualties is to bring us into urban warfare. But whether they can do it is very uncertain," he said. "We know when Saddam goes, when the regime goes, those forces are going to stop resisting."

Despite generally upbeat predictions from independent analysts, there are risks say senior Bush administration officials like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

"There are real dangers in confronting a tyrant who has and uses weapons of mass terror and has links to terrorists," he said.

But Mr. Wolfowitz also says those dangers will only grow if the international community does not take military action against Saddam Hussein.