WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration considers its military options for
deposing Saddam Hussein, senior administration and Pentagon officials say they
are exploring a new if risky approach: take Baghdad and one or two key command
centers and weapons depots first, in hopes of cutting off the country's leadership
and causing a quick collapse of the government.
The "inside-out" approach, as some call this Baghdad-first option, would capitalize
on the American military's ability to strike over long distances, maneuvering
forces to envelop a large target. Those advocating that plan say it reflects a
strong desire to find a strategy that would not require a full quarter-million
American troops, yet hits hard enough to succeed. One important aim would be to
disrupt Iraq's ability to order the use of weapons of mass destruction.
The advantages and risks of strikes aimed deep inside the country and radiating
outward are now under active discussion, according to senior administration and
Defense Department officials. No formal plan has yet been presented to President
Bush or the senior members of his national security team, and several officials
cautioned that a number of alternatives were still under consideration.
The inside-out ideas are essentially the reverse of the American strategy
in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, which dislodged Mr. Hussein's occupying army
The aim would be to kill or isolate Mr. Hussein and to pre-empt Iraq's use
of weapons of mass destruction, whether against an incoming force, front-line
allies or Israel. Those weapons are the wild card in all the outlines of a military
Officials say it may be possible to paralyze an Iraqi command-and-control
system that is highly centralized and authoritarian. Under such a system, midlevel
officers are not taught to improvise, should they be cut off from commanders.
It is also possible that those midlevel officers, if they fear that Mr. Hussein
has been killed, would not bother to fire weapons of mass destruction.
If that can be accomplished with a smaller invasion force than the 250,000
troops suggested in early drafts, the approach could appeal to skittish gulf allies
whose bases would be required for a war.
Those states are quietly advocating the quickest and smallest military operation
possible, to lessen anti-American protests on their streets. In that sense, the
war planning includes the political dimension of trying to tip reluctant allies
into supporting, tacitly at least, the operation.
Something nearer the 250,000 figure might have to be deployed to the region
anyway, to make sure that any forces that drop into Baghdad do not become isolated
or surrounded, bereft of a land line providing military support, food and ammunition.
The Defense Department deputy spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the Pentagon
would have no comment on potential military plans for Iraq.
But it is clear that the debate over whether and how to dislodge Mr. Hussein
is gaining speed within the administration and on Capitol Hill.
"There is a divergence of views on how can one best diminish the prospect
that he uses weapons of mass destruction, with any efficacy," said Senator Joseph
R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who stressed
that he had not been briefed on administration thinking.
Senator Biden, who is preparing to hold hearings on Iraq this week, said in
an interview: "That is where the argument for an inside-out operation gains credibility.
There is a diminished possibility that he will use chemical or biological weapons."
In May, President Bush was presented with concepts that advocated a major
invasion, but some senior officials are said to view the plan as unimaginative.
In contrast, a key national security aide, retired Gen. Wayne A. Downing,
had reportedly argued that Mr. Hussein could be toppled with minimal numbers of
Americans on the ground, provided they were backed up by huge airstrikes. However,
senior officials concluded that a proxy battle would be insufficient to bring
a change in power in Iraq, and General Downing left the White House last month.
"It's easy to rule out both ends of the spectrum," one senior Defense Department
official said. "We are looking at the three or four options in between."
No timetable has been set for military action, and if President Bush decides
to go ahead, his aides say, he will have to make a public, convincing case about
why Mr. Hussein poses an intolerable threat to the United States and its allies.
Some members of Congress, including conservative Republicans, are beginning to
urge Mr. Bush to explain his reasoning and goals before committing American forces
to topple a foreign government that has not attacked the United States.
"The time will come to do all of that," a senior administration official said
in an interview on Friday. "And no one is opposed to doing it."
A plan to immobilize the Iraqi leadership would draw from lessons learned
on maneuver warfare in the invasion of Panama, which Dick Cheney and Colin L.
Powell directed, and on the surprise Inchon Sea landing in Korea in 1951, according
to officials who monitor the internal debate.
"To the degree that you can have strategic and, especially, tactical surprise
in any military operation, that is important," said another senior Defense Department
official. President Bush has put Mr. Hussein on direct notice that regime change
is American policy. But just as the Taliban and Al Qaeda had little doubt that
the United States would respond to the attacks of Sept. 11, the timing and tactics
achieved a great measure of surprise, military officials said.
Baghdad is ringed by Mr. Hussein's most elite forces, and the city itself
is filled with antiaircraft batteries. While officials declined to discuss details
of any new operation in detail, it would probably include intense air attacks
followed by a combined airborne and ground assault on strategic targets.
Senior administration and Pentagon officials said they expected that a military
action against Iraq would be mostly American-run, with Britain the only partner
contributing significant forces. But cooperation from allies in the region — particularly
in the form of bases — would be essential.
Persian Gulf governments have significant areas of agreement with Mr. Bush's
policy, and equally important areas of concern, according to senior officials,
diplomats and military officers from the region.
Those nations have issued warnings against American military action, have
called for dialogue with Baghdad and they identified with Iraq at the Arab League
summit meeting last spring, yet gulf state officials said Mr. Hussein, while contained
today, remained a threat.
"We don't like Saddam," said one senior gulf diplomat. "We don't believe he
is a peaceful neighbor."
To win support of those strategic allies, America has to ensure that next
time, the military operation will take down Mr. Hussein once and for all, officials
from the region say.
"Any war against Iraq has to be successful," said another senior gulf official.
"America has to nail down the objective of the war."
Officials from those nations are equally adamant that any military action
should be the minimum necessary to bring about a change in rule. "The worst scenario
from our view would be a big war by air and land and with lots of bombs and civilian
casualties," said a gulf official.
In any case, the gulf nations first want the United States to demonstrate
some progress in the crisis between the Palestinians and Israelis before opening
yet another front in the region, after Afghanistan.
In concentrating its attention on an air campaign and ground action, the military
and administration officials have been weighing troop deployments ranging from
70,000 to 250,000. The new plan under discussion could conceivably be carried
out at the lower range of that spectrum.
Pentagon officials warn that tracking Mr. Hussein with any certainty is difficult
if not impossible, as shown by the global manhunt now under way for Osama bin
Laden. Likewise, despite a decade of intense scrutiny of Iraq's missile program
and its efforts to field biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, America's knowledge
of hidden labs, storage areas and mobile missile sites is still spotty.
Iraq is thought to possess a small number of Scud missiles — "A handful. A
couple of handfuls, maybe," according to a senior Defense Department official.
Senior military officials express confidence that the United States would do a
much better job hunting mobile Scuds next time than they did during the gulf war,
because of coverage from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Iraq has studied ways to counter stealth aircraft and improve its tracking
and jamming abilities. But for the most part, "They have mostly not used or tried
to use air defenses very effectively," said another senior Pentagon official.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company