Allies close to cutting off Iraqi supply, communications lines WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Relentless allied bombing raids are close to cutting off all Iraqi forces in Kuwait from needed supplies and eliminating Iraq's ability to direct a large-scale counterattack, according to senior U.S. military officials.

This recent assessment has led to a greater measure of confidence among U.S. generals that Iraq will be incapable of waging the kind of ground war it fought so successfully against Iran.

"If he can't maneuver his forces, he's got to go to a static defense," said a senior official familiar with the extent of damage inflicted on Iraqi forces. "Almost nobody wins in a static defense."

Another official, Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal, said Friday, "They haven't done much except hunker down. I think we've got him between a rock and a hard spot.

"They are confused; they are disorganized, and I think it's a direct result of a very tough, effective air campaign."

Allied pilots reported throughout last week that the Iraqis have not been aiming their barrages of anti-aircraft artillery fire and often have responded only after bombs have begun to fall.

U.S. officials still ascribe a "robust" fighting capability to individual Iraqi armored units and to the elite Republican Guards now positioned as "strategic reserves" in northern Kuwait and southern Iraq. And they still forecast potentially costly land battles if U.S. forces try to punch holes through layers of Iraqi minefields and other battlefield obstacles.

But at least 30 percent of the 4,280 tanks deployed by Iraq in and around Kuwait have been destroyed, along with 1,100 of 4,200 artillery pieces and 800 of 2,800 armored personnel carriers, the U.S. Central Command reported last week.

The actual extent of the damage is probably greater because these figures do not include badly damaged equipment that might be cannibalized for spare parts and taken out of service, officials said.

There also has been a debilitating toll of Iraqi troop casualties, although the allies have been loath to discuss anything that might be construed as a "body count."

Perhaps as significant as the available numbers, the intensive attacks on Iraqi supply lines and the military chain of command's ability to send orders to front-line units have yielded positive results for the allies, said a senior U.S. military official in the

Saudi capital, Riyadh.

As much as 90 percent of the supply lines from Baghdad to Kuwait have been severed, denying food, fuel and other supplies to units at the front, the official said. Ammunition stocks, more than anything else, have been the priority item in resupply efforts, he said.

The official said much more needed to be done to disrupt routes in the Kuwaiti theater. Despite an announced shift in targeting this month from areas deep in Iraq to front-line positions, the allies so far have been flying no more than 800 missions in the Kuwait area out of 2,500 to 3,000 daily sorties.

As for Iraq's surviving "command and control" operations, military leaders appear to be heavily dependent on improvised, unsecured communications on high-frequency radios no more sophisticated than walkie-talkies, the official said. President 2d Saddam Hussein "has an extraordinary amount of push-to-talk radios," he said, adding that the Iraqis were "using a little of this, a little of that" to keep lines open to field commanders.

Other military officials said Friday that the Iraqi leaders were even dispatching messengers on motorcycles to disseminate orders and intelligence.

"It would be very difficult for him to coordinate a corps-level attack," the U.S. official in Riyadh said. "A multi-corps [attack]? I don't think he can do that."

Capt. Jesse Morimoto, an Air Force intelligence officer who has been debriefing U.S. pilots and assessing battle damage, observed: "They have stopped operating as a national army [pursuing] theater objectives."

Now, they operate in "small pockets" seemingly working independently to save themselves, she said. "What they're doing now is trying to defend themselves as a people. The army is fairly stationary. There are some resupply efforts, but they're not very successful," Captain Morimoto said.

An unclassified review of Iraqi tactics, compiled by the U.S. Army Intelligence Agency before the war began, described the Iraqi army as being "distinguished by its flexibility, unity of command and high level of mobility."

Sizing up Iraq's performance in the eight-year war against Iran, the intelligence report said, "The army is highly qualified in planning, command and control, logistics and maintenance, but limitations placed upon the commanders' initiative, especially exploiting success, reduce these advantages."

And the ability to coordinate units and communicate was an essential ingredient to Iraqi successes in the war against Iran, according to analysts. Iraq often failed when its rigid chain of command was unable to coordinate ground forces in response to unexpected battlefield developments.

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