DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The United States has learned that Iraqi forces conducted secret military exercises for at least two years in preparation for their attack on Kuwait under a war plan designed ultimately to conquer the oil fields of eastern Saudi Arabia, according to U.S. officials.
Newly gathered intelligence indicates that the Iraqi plan, drafted by President Saddam Hussein as long as five years ago, envisioned no more than a strategic pause in Kuwait before Iraqi forces continued south into Saudi Arabia, the knowledgeable officials said.
Among the "multiple" exercises now understood to have served as trial runs for the long-planned invasion was a mid-July dress rehearsal in central Iraq in which elite special operations forces practiced for the helicopter-borne assault on Kuwait City that launched the Iraqi invasion Aug. 2.
The sources said that the years of preparation also appear to have helped an advance party of Iraqi commandos make their way into Kuwait immediately before the invasion by posing as a sports delegation on a long-arranged visit. Instead, the "athletes" guided Iraqi helicopters to their targets.
By contrast, the United States was so ill-prepared for the invasion that U.S. warships dispatched hastily to the region after the attack had to wait four days before maps of Kuwait and Iraq could be prepared and loaded into computers used for guiding weapons, the officials said.
The new findings, circulated by the U.S. intelligence community, provide what the officials said was compelling evidence that the surprise Aug. 2 attack was in fact the product of a long-drafted plan aimed at winning control of half the world's supply of oil.
"It's clear that he [President Hussein] was exercising for this at least two years ago," said one source who was briefed on the new intelligence. "There's good -- but not entirely conclusive -- evidence that he began planning another three years before that."
That the information was uncovered only in the aftermath of the invasion, however, also raises new questions about the failure of the United States to detect and respond to the preparations sooner.
The two-year series of Iraqi military exercises, whose purpose became apparent only in hindsight, "probably should have been seen to add up to something," one official said.
Instead, at the highest levels of the Pentagon and State Department, "nobody had really done any serious planning for this contingency," another source said.
The new disclosures come in the wake of concern about the failure ofthe United States to predict the invasion even after Iraqi troops began to mass on the Kuwaiti border. Administration officials have said that the intelligence community provided adequate warning that Iraq was capable of attack but that policy-makers chose to discount the alert, believing that the buildup was nothing more than a show of force.
However, some officials said the fact that Iraqi preparations had been carried out over a lengthy period of time should be cause for deeper concern about the adequacy of U.S. efforts to monitor and analyze events inside Iraq.
"When you go back and look at the information," one source said,"the previous weeks all add up."
The special Iraqi exercises conducted in advance of the invasion included several conducted on terrain apparently chosen for its similarity to that of Kuwait, officials said. But they declined to provide further details.
They also did not disclose how the United States had learned of the existence of the Iraqi war plan, which officials said Mr. Hussein may have had drafted as early as 1985, when Iraq was in the midst of a stalemated war with Iran.
But a knowledgeable source said that the plan was regarded by intelligence officials as a definitive indication of Mr. Hussein's intentions.