Published on Saturday, May 25, 2002 in the Guardian of London
Bush Backs Off Iraq Invasion
Military leaders recommend postponing mission after warning president of heavy casualties
by Matthew Engel in Washington
Senior American military leaders are believed to have turned sharply against any idea of invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and have started to gain the upper hand in persuading the White House that such a mission should be postponed, preferably indefinitely.
The joint chiefs of staff have assured the White House their forces could successfully invade Iraq - or anywhere else - if instructed. But they have warned that such an invasion would be extremely fraught, given the resources depleted by the war in Afghanistan.
One of the factors most alarming the generals is the possibility that their troops could be drawn into street fighting in Baghdad, without support from the local population, leading to heavy US casualties. This ties in with long-standing fears that Saddam might use such a moment to unleash biological or chemical weapons.
Their instinctive caution has been strengthened by Operation Prominent Hammer, a highly secret war game recently played by senior officials, details of which have begun to leak out. It revealed that shortages of equipment could seriously hamper the operation and endanger the lives of Americans and Iraqi civilians.
The air force is the most alarmed of the services, according to analysts, because they are short of planes, trained pilots and munitions. A third of their refueling planes are reported to be under repair.
But there are also concerns about the ability of special forces, currently being used in the Philippines and Yemen as well as Afghanistan, to operate successfully in Iraq at the same time, especially bearing in mind the intelligence services' need to concentrate on homeland security.
It is understood that the country's senior generals - the heads of the army, navy, air forces and marines - agreed with the chairman of the joint chiefs, Richard Myers, and his deputy, Peter Pace, in their assessment.
General Tommy Franks who, as head of the army's central command, would be in charge of any invasion of Iraq, has told the president that an invasion to overthrow Saddam would require at least 200,000 troops, a number that would seriously stretch even the American military, given the near impossibility of mounting an international coalition.
At a Pentagon briefing yesterday, General Pace sounded what was, by military standards, an uncertain trumpet.
Turning to his boss, the defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he assured him: "Your military is ready today to execute whatever mission the civilian leadership of this country gives us to do." But he added: "The fact of the matter is, the more time you have to prepare for that kind of mission, whatever it is, the more elegant the solution could be."
The head of the air force, General John Jumper, was blunter. "We never sized ourselves to have to do high force-protection levels at home and overseas at the same time. We're stretched very thin in security forces," he was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
The military assessment backs up the messages pouring into the White House from elsewhere. The dangerous situation involving India and Pakistan, as well as Israel and Palestine, unnerves diplomats. World opinion ranges from the wary - in Britain - to the vehemently opposed.
Even Turkey, regarded by the Iraq-hawks in Washington as a crucial and loyal ally on this issue, is said by government sources there to be "very nervous indeed" about the idea, mainly because of fears of the political instability that would result. Officials are also getting bleak assessments about the quality of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein, and about the likely reaction of the Iraqi people should the Americans invade.
"The Iraqi people hate Saddam," said Judith Kipper, the Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "but they blame the US for their problems. Nobody likes foreign troops marching through their country, especially the Iraqis."
The cost of American military ambitions is mounting. And, with the mid-term elections only five months away, analysts believe an invasion is impossible before 2003, and that the White House is already starting to look for a way of reconciling its declared policy of "regime change" in Iraq with the need to back away from what looks increasingly like an untenable position.
Some military sources believe that, even though special forces are now thinly stretched, the US will switch to covert operations to try to loosen Saddam's grip on power.
This ties in with what President Bush said after his meeting with the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, in Berlin on Thursday: "I told the chancellor that I have no war plans on my desk, which is the truth, and that we've got to use all means at our disposal to deal with Saddam Hussein." The president added that there would be full consultation with allies and that any action would be handled in a "respectful" way.
It remains possible that the US will feel its hand being forced if the Iraqis, sensing American weakness, emerge from their recent quiescence. The Pentagon says Saddam's air defense forces have attacked American and British planes three times in the last three weeks, as they patrolled the southern no-fly zone.
General Pace played this down yesterday: "It's consistent with what's been going on for the past several years," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002