Published on Sunday, July 14, 2002 in the Observer of London
War Clouds Gather as Hawks Lay Their Plans
But some in the US are asking why a blueprint for the conflict was leaked at the moment when sleaze scandals hit a new peak
by Jason Burke in London and Ed Vulliamy in New York
In London a Jordanian prince attends a meeting of Iraqi army defectors who are discussing what to do with their country once Saddam is dead and gone. In northern Iraq American intelligence operatives gather information on minefields and Iraqi troop dispositions. In Baghdad Saddam Hussein's eldest son Uday warns of a meltdown in the Middle East when war comes. And officials reveal that Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's second most senior figure, will visit Turkey next week to talk tactics and that Tony Blair has been invited to travel to Camp David later this year to meet President George Bush and discuss plans for war. The signs appear unambiguous. This weekend the message is clear. Get ready for war.
Or is it? Last week's frenzied speculation about imminent conflict has raised as many questions as it has provided answers. Why were officials at the Pentagon, the State Department or London's Ministry of Defense leaking so liberally? Was it a smoke screen for some secret hitherto undisclosed strategy? Was the war fever engineered to destabilize Saddam Hussein? Or were Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Co merely distracting attention from domestic difficulties?
The first leaks came 10 days ago when a five-inch thick dossier detailing plans for an invasion of Iraq involving 250,000 men was handed to the New York Times. The story went swiftly around the world. Last Sunday The Observer published the results of our own investigation: into the growing indications that the Americans hoped to use Jordan as a jumping-off point for at least some units in the assault. For the rest of the week a series of stories indicating that a war with Iraq in the new year was certain shared the headlines with the appalling news from the world's stock markets.
To some it was proof of cynical manipulation. In recent weeks there has been a plunge in public confidence in the ability of the President and his party to manage the economy and the administration's own personal honesty.
'It's certainly strange that the more the finance scandals approach the White House, the harder and sharper the plans for an attack on Iraq,' said one staffer in the office of Democrat congressman Henry Waxman of California last week.
Critics of Bush point out that the battle plan was leaked just as the sleaze scandals reached a climax and began to implicate the President himself.
But The Observer has been told that the leak did not come from the White House. Instead it came from within the Pentagon, from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top professional soldiers and planners who drew it up in the first place. That opens up another possible angle entirely.
It may well be that the leak was from soldiers opposed to a war the President and their civilian political masters, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, want them to fight. This is an exact echo of the Pentagon view under President George Bush Sr 11 years ago, when Colin Powell - then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - opposed the Gulf war, but was bullied into fighting it by Bush and his then Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney.
Powell and Cheney have despised each other ever since. Powell is known to be opposed to another war against Iraq. According to senior officials serving under Powell at the State Department, as well as others in the Pentagon, the leaks are part of a sophisticated campaign to raise the stakes before a war could be declared with their approval. Thus another mid-week leak suggesting there was no casus belli that would allow America to commence hostilities. Saddam would have - for instance, say officials - to invade a neighbor, re-commence the genocide against Shia Muslims or Kurdish minorities or field a nuclear weapon.
'There has to be a defining moment,' said one State Department official, '...which is a recognized international offence in order to justify an attack under the [United Nations] charter.'
To those who oppose the war the leaks serve a useful secondary purpose. As the reports of American intentions were read in Baghdad there were signs that, despite Uday and his father's rhetoric, unease was growing among the Iraqi elite. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry was swift to point out that it had not been to blame for the collapse nine days ago of the talks with the UN over the readmission of inspectors searching for the nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry Saddam is suspected of holding - or trying to build. The Iraqis said they were willing to talk again and offered to provide the Americans with information about airmen shot down during the Gulf war. Washington dismissed the offer as a 'PR stunt'.
But if Powell and his allies are trying to bluff the Iraqis into concessions while simultaneously undercutting the hawks in the administration it is a dangerous game. Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz have for a year been saying - with Presidential backing - that they have all the justification they need for an attack or invasion. The leaks could play straight into their hands. A senior Pentagon source close to Rumsfeld told The Observer that 'Iraq has given the United States every reason to attack under the UN charter, which allows pre-emptive action by nations facing an imminent threat, which Saddam clearly does'.
And the more the politicians ramp up the threat, the more they have to do something about it, whatever their generals privately think.
'There is a dynamic being set up here and the worry must be that the architects of that dynamic will not always be able to control it,' said Rosemary Hollis of the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs.
So if it comes to war, what are the Americans' options? Plan A, the one that was leaked, involves the big battalions. More than 200,000 men, in three major battle groups backed by thousands of aircraft, effectively invade Iraq.
Quite where they do it from is largely dependent on regional power politics but if just two of the nations surrounding Saddam's state decide to take a risk to help America then it is feasible. From Turkey, the most secular of the states that neighbor Iraq, large numbers of troops could push through into the northern part of the country currently run by the Kurds.
For the Turks the fear is that their own Kurdish minority will try to use the opportunity of a war to carve out their own state. Wolfowitz's visit is designed to allay those concerns. He will point out that the huge forces would mean that the Iraqi Kurds, whose fighting capacity has not impressed Pentagon planners, would actually be little more than passive partners during the assault, undermining their negotiating position after Saddam is gone.
If Turkey is on board then all the Americans have to do is convince one of the Gulf states to risk domestic unrest by helping Washington. The most likely candidate is Kuwait from where a second battle group, bolstered by some of the 300 tanks prepositioned there, would start pushing up from the south, perhaps aided by amphibious landings.
From Jordan, special forces units would launch lightning raids to knock out non-conventional weapons installations, any missiles Saddam might be deploying and, it is hoped, find and incapacitate the Iraqi dictator himself. US military planners reckon they have 48 hours from the start of hostilities to get to Saddam before he decides to use whatever nuclear, biological or chemical weapons he might have.
And throughout the whole operation more than 1,000 aircraft, including B52 Stratofortresses, B2 Spirit stealth bombers and drones would attack command and control centers. It would be the first genuine 'network centric' war - as strategists are now calling it. Ground troops would be left without orders while hi-tech missiles destroy everything that is needed to keep an army going. 'Saddam will find himself in a dark bunker with no communications, no food, no light and no toilet paper,' said one military analyst last week.
In such circumstances the Iraqi military forces, considerably weakened after 11 years of sanctions, are expected to disintegrate rapidly. Last week Iraqi opposition figures in London told The Observer of their confidence that the army would not fight - not even the feared 100,000-strong Republican Guard. Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, of the Iraqi National Congress said that he was 'completely convinced that the Iraqi army and the Republican Guard would rebel against Saddam Hussein'.
'Even those closest to Saddam will defect,' said Colonel Hamed al-Ziadi, who was one of the first military officers to abandon the Iraqi leader.
Al-Ziadi was speaking at a meeting in London of more than 70 defected Iraqi military officers. Their show of strength was proof to some analysts that the 'big battalions' option is not likely to be the one the Pentagon will opt for.
'A month ago it looked like it was going to be a full-scale ground attack,' said Gerald Butt, the Gulf Editor of the Cyprus-based Middle Eastern Economic Survey . 'But now it is more likely that if they go for anything it will be special forces carrying out targeted attacks aimed at undermining morale and provoking a revolt against Saddam.'
Butt told The Observer that the threat of domestic unrest meant countries like Saudi Arabia would be risking 'political suicide' if they went along with Washington. 'There is social unrest beneath the surface,' he said. 'In Saudi Arabia there are a huge number of skilled people who are unemployed and deeply resentful of the elite. Anti-American feeling is so strong everywhere in the Gulf that rulers just can't take risks.'
So Plan B - the Surgical Strike - may be preferred. That involves a series of strikes by precision munitions and special forces that effectively disarm the dictator. While Saddam and his 300,000 men are disorientated more special forces units would help locals and defecting soldiers to take over. 'You cut the head off and leave the body,' said one analyst.
However, there is one question that analysts say is getting none of the attention that it should, whether Bush goes for the Surgical Strike or the Big Battalions approach: What happens next?
'What is most worrying is that there is no clear map through to the endgame,' Hollis said. 'The prognosis for stability is not great. How do we avoid a bloody settling of scores? How do we stop the Iraqi people turning against the Americans?'
At the London conference last week what would happen after Saddam went was the main topic of conversation. 'Given Iraq's 40-year history of repression, it is highly likely that blood will fill the streets,' said Major-General Saad Obeidi, in charge of psychological warfare before defecting in 1986. 'We have to prevent this.'
As yet no one seems to know how.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002