Debate builds over war plans for Iraq

Defense officials weigh 3 widely differing options for defeating Hussein

August 12, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT IRWIN, Calif. - Under cover of darkness, hundreds of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descend onto a remote desert airstrip, quickly seizing it from enemy forces.

As they scramble to set up a perimeter defense, soldiers flip open laptops that display the precise location of the enemy.

Other soldiers in swift-moving armored vehicles seize a chemical weapons depot and later a surface-to-air missile site, threats they would likely encounter in Iraq.

The captured airfield is at this California training range, and soldiers in the three-week training operation called Millennium Challenge are testing the latest military technology under rugged, if not actual battlefield, conditions. Officers expect the exercise to provide useful lessons should President Bush decide to invade Iraq.

While soldiers train in this Mojave Desert range, a hilly and parched swath of land the size of Rhode Island, the war drums in Washington grow louder by the day. And so does the debate over how that war should be conducted.

Three widely differing plans for defeating Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have surfaced publicly. And officials say a number of others are under consideration.

The debate has pitted the civilian Pentagon leadership, presided over by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, against some senior members of the uniformed military.

At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over the number of U.S. troops that would be needed to topple Hussein, the degree of logistical support required and the capabilities of U.S. air power.

Playing into the argument is an array of new high-tech weaponry and equipment, much of it battle-tested in Afghanistan.

Officials must also contend with a number of issues that could determine the final plan of attack, including the support, or lack of it, from neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia and the degree to which a loose coalition of Iraqi opposition groups can be counted on in combat.

Finally, planners formulating their battle scheme must weigh the degree to which Hussein can expect his army of about 400,000 - including a core group of 100,000 elite Republican Guard troops - to rally around him.

The war plans and the debate:

A three-pronged attack from Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan with 250,000 U.S. forces that was first devised during the Clinton administration by the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., which has responsibility for the region.

Defense officials and military analysts said the plan is a classic Army proposal, a huge mixture of light and heavy forces to overwhelm an enemy and reduce risk, much as the former CentCom commander, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, employed during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

But military officers said that Rumsfeld and his senior staff bristled at that plan, which was offered by the current CentCom commander, Gen. Tommy Franks, saying it was unimaginative and would take too long to put into place.

In Rumsfeld's view, the situation with Iraq does not require a strategy like the one used to fight the gulf war, where the buildup took six months and included more than 500,000 U.S. troops.

Some critics also warn that Hussein could use the buildup time to strike at Israel, other U.S. allies or the assembling American forces with missiles armed with chemical and biological warheads.

One defense official said Rumsfeld and his aides were frustrated by the lack of creativity and high troop levels in the Franks plan. "They simply said ... your numbers are unacceptable," the official said.

An enormous U.S. air campaign that would be followed by a combination of 50,000 U.S. and Iraqi opposition forces, somewhat similar to the strategy used in Afghanistan.

The attackers would target Iraqi troops and capture large areas of territory, aided by Iraqi opposition fighters, who would also be used for intelligence gathering and to persuade Iraqi army officers to defect. Under this plan, Kurdish troops in the north would also take part in the fight.

But critics say Iraq is too formidable a foe for that number of troops. They also say the Iraqi opposition does not have enough skilled fighters and doubt that there is enough time to turn them into an effective force like the Northern Alliance that fought side by side with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Precision air attacks and troop assaults on key command and control sites in Baghdad as well as nearby chemical and biological sites. The plan, known as both "Baghdad First" and "Inside-Out," and first reported by The New York Times, would require 80,000 to 100,000 troops.

The plan is seen as a way to quickly cripple Hussein's command and control system, perhaps killing the dictator and top officials, leaving Iraqi troops rudderless. Moreover, the proposal calls for neutralizing what is seen by some as a prime threat to U.S. forces and its allies, the chemical and biological weapons facilities.

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