WASHINGTON -- Senior Bush administration officials are for the first time openly discussing a subject they have sidestepped during the buildup of forces around Iraq: what could go wrong, and not only during an attack but also in the aftermath of an invasion.
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has a four- to five-page, typewritten catalog of risks that senior aides say he keeps in his desk drawer. He refers to it constantly, updating it with his own ideas and suggestions from senior military commanders, and discussing it with President Bush.
His list includes a "concern about Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction against his own people and blaming it on us, which would fit a pattern," Mr. Rumsfeld said. He said the document also noted "that he could do what he did to the Kuwaiti oil fields and explode them, detonate, in a way that lost that important revenue for the Iraqi people."
That item is of particular concern to administration officials' postwar planning because they are counting on Iraqi oil revenues to help pay for rebuilding the nation.
Although administration officials are no doubt concerned about the ultimate number of American casualties, they have declined to discuss the issue and it is not known how that risk figures in Mr. Rumsfeld's list.
If there is one thing that haunts administration planners it is the thought of a protracted conflict, which could lead to increased casualties. "How long will this go on?" one senior administration official asked. "Three days, three weeks, three months, three years?" Even some of this official's aides winced as they contemplated the last time frame on that list.
The Rumsfeld document also warns of Mr. Hussein hiding his weapons in mosques or hospitals or cultural sites, and using his citizenry or captured foreign journalists as human shields. The risks, Mr. Rumsfeld said, "run the gamut from concerns about some of the neighboring states being attacked, concerns about the use of weapons of mass destruction against those states or against our forces in or out of Iraq."
A senior Bush administration official confirmed that a number of uncertainties remained even after months of internal studies, advance planning and the insertion of Central Intelligence Agency officers and Special Operations forces into some corners of Iraq.
"We still do not know how U.S. forces will be received," the senior official said. "Will it be cheers, jeers or shots? And the fact is, we won't know until we get there."
In an administration that strives to sound bold and optimistic — especially when discussing the political, economic and military power of America — such cautionary notes from the White House, the Pentagon and intelligence officials may well have a political purpose. Following the military maxim that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, the administration may feel it is better to warn the American public of these dangers in advance.
According to his aides, President Bush has to prepare the country for what one senior official calls "the very real possibility that this will not look like Afghanistan," a military victory that came with greater speed than any had predicted, and with fewer casualties.
If Mr. Bush decides to begin military action without explicit United Nations approval, other nations may well withhold support for what promises to be the far more complex operation of stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq while preventing religious and political score-settling and seeking out well-hidden weapons stores before others find them, not to speak of continuing the war on terror.
"There is a lot to keep us awake at night," one senior administration official said.
As America's intelligence assets focus on Iraq, senior officials worry they may be less thorough in tracking threats to the nation elsewhere.
Just last week on Capitol Hill, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that his ability to detect the spread of nuclear weapons or missiles around the world was being "stretched thin," and he said that some parts of the world, including South Asia, Russia and China, had less coverage than he would like.
The director of central intelligence, George J. Tenet, hinted at one of the deepest worries heard in the hallways of the intelligence agency, the Pentagon and the White House: that a successful removal of Saddam Hussein could be followed by a scramble among Iraqis for what remains of his military arsenal — particularly his chemical and biological weapons — before it was secured by American forces.
"The country cannot be carved up," Mr. Tenet said of Iraq. "The country gets carved up and people believe they have license to take parts of the country for themselves. That will make this a heck of a lot harder."
At the White House, officials acknowledged that they had been late in focusing on the question of how to bring enough relief assistance to the region in the days after an attack begins, which could turn the populace against their would-be liberators. Mr. Bush's political aides are acutely aware that if Iraq turns into lengthy military operation, or if stabilization efforts are viewed by the Iraqi people as foreign occupation, those events will quickly be seized upon by Mr. Bush's opponents.
Administration officials list these among their concerns:
¶A muddy transition of power. Most of the planning has called for the swift removal of Mr. Hussein and his top aides. While a coup or exile might preclude the need for military action, they could create a chaotic situation in which Mr. Hussein is gone but the United States is not in control. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, has begun to talk about how it will not be enough to remove Mr. Hussein, saying, "We must also get rid of Saddam-ism." Some, especially at the Pentagon, ask if, in the event of a coup or exile, the United States military might have to go into Iraq anyway to assure that the succession of power leaves in place a government that would give up all weapons of mass destruction.
¶Chaos after Mr. Hussein is gone. Several task forces on Iraq have examined what some call the "score-settling problem," the specter of rivalries and feuds that have been bottled up for decades spinning out of control. Most have concluded that one result may be an American military occupation likely to be longer than the 18 months that Ms. Rice has talked about. Douglas J. Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, noted in Senate testimony last week that getting at the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction would be a "complex, dangerous and expensive task."
¶Events outside Iraq. North Korea is the first concern here, because a crisis there could require military resources tied up in the Middle East. An equal concern is terrorism here or in Europe, set off by Al Qaeda or others. One official noted recently that it might be impossible to know if an act of terror was set off by agents of Iraq or simply by terrorists taking advantage of the Iraq invasion.
¶Securing the oil fields. It is assumed that Mr. Hussein would try to destroy the oil infrastructure. The only question is how thorough a job he would do. Blowing up the above-ground pumping stations, while troublesome, would not be that hard to fix. Sinking explosives deep underground, where they damage the drilling infrastructure, could be far more destructive.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company