U.S. plots air, ground campaign against Iraq

Bush considers using up to 250,000 U.S. troops

April 28, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, in developing a potential approach for toppling President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, is concentrating its attention on a major air campaign and ground invasion, with initial estimates contemplating the use of 70,000 to 250,000 troops.

The administration is turning to that approach after concluding that a coup in Iraq would be unlikely to succeed and that a proxy battle using local forces there would be insufficient to bring a change in power.

But senior officials acknowledge that any offensive would probably be delayed until early next year, allowing time to create the right military, economic and diplomatic conditions. These include avoiding summer combat in bulky chemical suits, preparing for a global oil price shock, and waiting until there is progress toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Until recently, the administration had considered a possible confrontation with Hussein this fall, after building a case at the United Nations that the Iraqi leader is unwilling to allow the highly intrusive inspections needed to prove that he has no weapons of mass destruction.

Now that schedule seems less realistic. Conflict in the Middle East has widened a rift within the administration over whether military action can be undertaken without inflaming Arab states and prompting anti-American violence throughout the region.

But another report says an invasion could happen sooner. The Boston Globe says leading Pentagon officials are putting the final touches on a plan to invade as early as this summer.

In his public speeches, President Bush sounds as intent as ever about ousting Hussein, making it clear that he will not let the Middle East crisis obscure his goal. But he has not issued any order for the Pentagon to mobilize its forces, and today there is no official "war plan."

Instead, policy-makers and operational commanders are trying to sketch out the broad outlines of the confrontation they expect.

Bases for operation

Among the many questions they must address is where to base air and ground forces in the region. Even before Bush's tense meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Thursday, the Pentagon was working on the assumption that it might have to carry out military action without the use of bases in the kingdom.

The planning anticipates the possible extensive use of bases for U.S. forces in Turkey and Kuwait, with Qatar as the replacement for the sophisticated air operations center in Saudi Arabia and with Oman and Bahrain playing important roles.

As for a war plan, the military expects to be asked for a more traditional approach than the unconventional campaign in Afghanistan. Such an approach would resemble the Persian Gulf war in style if not in size and would be fought with more modern weapons and more dynamic tactics.

In terms of diplomatic reaction from the region, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their senior aides contend that Arab leaders would publicly protest but secretly celebrate Hussein's downfall - as long as the operation was decisive - and that ousting him would ease the job of calming violence between Israel and the Palestinians. They believe that warnings of uprisings among Arab populations are overblown and compare them to similar warnings before the gulf war, which proved unfounded.

But at the State Department and among some at the White House, arguments are posed that efforts to topple Hussein would be viewed by Arabs as a confrontation with Islam, destabilizing the entire region and complicating the campaign against Osama bin Laden and his network, al-Qaida.

The reaction in Saudi Arabia already is critical.

The United States would need permission to use Saudi airspace adjacent to Iraq, if not Saudi air bases, officials said, but it is unclear whether Bush took up that subject with Abdullah when the topic of Iraq came up. Rumsfeld, who met with the Saudi leader a day ahead of Bush, said access to bases "was not a topic at all" of his discussions.

Turkish officials, for their part, said that no negotiations on basing American troops for a new campaign against Iraq had taken place. American officials confirmed that, calling such talks premature.

Kuwait's position, too, is uncertain. At an Arab League summit meeting last month, Iraq agreed to recognize Kuwait and pledged not to invade again in exchange for a declaration that an attack on Iraq would be considered an attack against all Arab states.

But American officials said they could rely on Kuwait, whose survival is owed to U.S. military power after Iraq invaded the country in 1990.

Senior administration, Pentagon and military officials say that consensus has emerged that there is little chance for a military coup to unseat Hussein from within, even with the United States exerting economic and military pressure and providing covert assistance.

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