U.S. forces not insufficient for Iraq fight, Rumsfeld says

Defense secretary denies personnel stretched thin by anti-terror campaign

May 25, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld brushed aside news reports yesterday that U.S. forces are stretched too thin because of the war on terrorism to mount a major attack on Iraq.

Rumsfeld suggested that projections of how much U.S. military might is needed to fight regional conflicts are sometimes excessive. In the 1991 Persian Gulf war, he pointed out, most of the assembled American forces and weaponry were not needed to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait and were not used.

Amid reports that senior military officials are urging caution about a possible attack on Iraq, Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon, "We've not proposed that a country be invaded."

But the defense secretary said, "This department is clearly in a position to do what the civilian leadership has asked us to do or may ask us to do."

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, appearing with Rumsfeld, declared that U.S. forces "are ready to execute whatever mission the civilian leadership of this country gives."

Still, from news reports and interviews with military officers, there are indications that after eight months of fighting in Afghanistan and the deployment of U.S. troops elsewhere in the war on terrorism, some top military officers believe that the armed forces need time to regroup their personnel, buy more weaponry and repair overtaxed equipment before tackling Iraq.

Pressed on such reports, Rumsfeld raised "a little footnote in history" that appeared intended to quell such concerns.

"Nine-tenths of everything that was taken over to the Middle East to fight the war of Desert Storm a decade or so ago was brought back unused," he said. "It's hard to know precisely what you think might be necessary. You have more than you think you're going to need."

There are no indications that a military confrontation with Iraq is imminent. But military officers and defense analysts point to the hawkish rhetoric toward Iraq from President Bush and senior administration officials, along with renewed efforts to gain support from gulf allies to oust Saddam Hussein.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who met in March with gulf leaders, in part to gauge sentiment about removing Hussein, dismissed a suggestion this week that Hussein's ouster might worsen matters by destabilizing Iraq and the region.

"One scenario by which it would be worse is if we do nothing and one of his sons succeeds him," Cheney said. "There's no reason to be optimistic about the succession in Iraq if the outside world allows Saddam to continue what he's doing."

Pentagon officials and defense analysts say it could take 200,000 troops to mount an attack on Iraq - about one-third the number used in the gulf war.

Of all four services, the Air Force appears to be the most concerned about being asked to undertake another war in Iraq, said a Pentagon official who requested anonymity. The Air Force would be crucial to knocking out Iraqi air defenses, military units, and chemical and biological weapons facilities.

"If there's a sense of concern, it's in that service," the official said, pointing to the depleted inventory of precision bombs as a result of the Afghan campaign and the need to repair or upgrade aircraft.

In March, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche told the House Armed Services Committee that the Afghanistan operations "continue to tax" the inventory of precision-guided munitions and that the Air Force is working with defense contractors to step up munitions production.

Another concern, the Pentagon official said, is whether Saudi Arabia or other countries would allow landing rights for U.S. aircraft in case of a war with Iraq. Without access to such airfields, the U.S. military would face longer runs for its planes, furthering the wear and tear on aircraft and personnel.

Moreover, the Army's Special Forces have played a key role in Afghanistan. Other Special Forces units have gone to the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia to aid in anti-terror efforts.

Asked about the readiness of Green Berets to undertake a campaign in Iraq, one military officer said: "We have enough [Special Operations Forces] to do what we're doing now. To do anything else would be real hard. That's the bottom line."

Still, one defense official questioned the concerns that some senior officials are raising about the readiness to attack Iraq.

"If they're doing that, they're doing that out there on their own, without telling the [civilian] leadership," said the official, who requested anonymity.

Pace, the Joint Chiefs vice chairman, said, "I, personally, and the other chiefs have as much opportunity as we need to say whatever we want to say to our leaders."

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