WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Army War College has some disquieting news for the U.S. military: It's not ready for war with Iraq.
In a 95-page report assessing the impressive performance of the Iraqi military during its eight-year war with Iran, Army experts concluded that Iraq's "authentic victory" was due to a well-trained and cagey fighting force, strongly supported by the population.
"The Iraqis are much better fighters than was formerly believed," said the study, completed in the spring but only now gaining wide distribution. "Iraq won the war through its own efforts and skill, and a substantial amount of credit for this must go to the Iraqi military."
And that should be cause for concern. "We should ask ourselves whether we are prepared for such action -- in our view we are not," the authors said. "The style of warfare in the Middle East has changed radically, which means that to perform competently, our forces must be reconfigured, retrained, and re-equipped."
Military officials are split on the report's conclusion: Some believe that the power and skill of Iraq's military have been consistently low-balled by U.S. officials, while others maintain that the report inflates Saddam Hussein's military might.
"Those guys are paid to challenge the Army's conventional wisdom, and the conventional wisdom is we'll cream 'em," one Army officer said.
The report praised Iraq's military for its capability to conduct large-scale operations with sophisticated weapons, boost the morale of its troops, pace itself to operate most efficiently and use surprise and deception.
"It's a devastating machine," Stephen C. Pelletiere, the primary author, said yesterday, adding that Army rules bar him from assessing the prospects for U.S. forces in a battle with the Iraqi military.
But the Iraqi military sometimes exaggerates its own power, as it did when it invaded Iran. "When [Mr. Hussein] got into the war, he thought it was a piece of cake," Mr. Pelletiere said. "He thought pretty much the way we think now: 'We're going to knock him off in two weeks.' "
The report also highlighted Mr. Hussein's gentler side: He wanted to keep both nations' casualties to a minimum, going so far as to allow a bridge to remain standing across the Shatt-al-Arab waterway during the battle for the port city of Fao so that the overwhelmed Iranian forces would have an escape route.
The report, "Iraqi Power and U.S. Security in the Middle East," says any force fighting the 1-million-strong Iraqi force should be prepared for fierce tank battles, reinforced by long-range artillery and attack helicopters, and a "very large, mostly modern air force" capable of striking targets anywhere in the theater.
Aided by chemical weapons and long-range missiles, the Iraqis, if attacked, probably would "lure their enemy into prearranged killing zones where, once Iraqi artillery had broken the momentum of an attack, an armor-heavy counterattack would be launched," the report said.
According to Pentagon officials, that's just what the Iraqi forces in Kuwait have been doing recently: Putting infantry forces on the front line, and pulling tanks and other armor back to give the heavier forces more options for counterattacking.
"We believe Iraq's military would be vulnerable to a well-integrated combined arms force able to seize the initiative and conduct battle on its own terms, avoid the killing zones, subject the counterattack formations to interdiction, use high-quality electronic warfare, and be capable of bringing the air war directly to Iraqi cities, thus demonstrating the relative power of the enemy," it said.
The study, by three members of the war college's Strategic Studies Institute, sought to explain how Iraq defeated more-populous Iran in the 1980-1988 war.
After Iraq's invasion was turned back by Iran, the war bogged down for years as the Iraqis dug in along their border and repeatedly repelled Iran's "human wave" attacks.
The Iraqis also were hindered in the early years of the war by Mr. Hussein and his advisers, who did not want an all-out war, according to the report. Once he gave his forces the power to command the way they saw fit, they performed much better.