WASHINGTON - With United Nations inspectors and some U.S. allies pressing for more time, possibly months, to probe for Saddam Hussein's illegal arms, the nation's top military officer said the possibility of invading Iraq in the warmer months is not a concern.
"Weather is not a factor," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday, telling reporters that he has raised the issue of the "brutally hot" desert climate with Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region. "We could do better in that environment than any adversary."
Some defense analysts and military officers say an attack in the withering spring or summer months would slow an operation designed to be swift and crushing, and lead to innumerable heat-related casualties as well as malfunctions in high-tech equipment such as radios and microwave radar. Military planners would also have to make room for about 40 percent more water for thirsty troops.
But some who have fought in Iraq, including retired Maj. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, agreed with Myers. McCaffrey said it was "nonsense" to think soldiers could not mount a summer attack.
U.S. troops train to fight in all types of weather, and units rotate throughout the year to the Mojave Desert in California, where summer temperatures rise to 115 degrees, much like those in Iraq, McCaffrey said.
"The weather is not a dominant factor," said McCaffrey, who commanded the Army's 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during the famed "Left Hook" attack into Iraq during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. "You give them water, the soldiers keep moving. Categorically, we can conduct offensive operations in the middle of July and carry out our task."
Moreover, chemical and biological weapons - considered among the greatest hazards in an attack on Iraq - would not be as effective as temperatures rise, officials said.
Military planners are thought to be looking at late February or early March for an attack. But French President Jacques Chirac said yesterday that he favors giving U.N. weapons inspectors "several months" to search Iraq for prohibited arms. And Mohamed ElBaradei, director- general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said inspectors would need at least that much time to complete their work.
As a result, if President Bush decides to go to war, American soldiers could begin fighting in April, when the average daily high in Baghdad is 85 degrees, or May, when the temperature climbs to 95. Or later, when it is even hotter.
Not everyone shares the confidence of Myers and McCaffrey, contending that there is a so-called "weather window" from late fall to early spring to which military action in Iraq should be confined, if possible.
"We can fight it in March if we need to," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, noting that soldiers wearing chemical protective suits in hot weather can be worn down in 15 to 30 minutes. "Summertime is pretty much out [for an invasion] unless you really have to."
An Army officer at Fort Hood, Texas, who requested anonymity, said the assumption among his soldiers is that they would not fight in the intense heat. "We'll end the fighting before the summer begins or we'll start in the fall," he predicted.
Since ancient times, commanders have considered weather when planning military campaigns and opted for the best conditions. The Romans tried to restrict military campaigns in Northern Europe to the period from May to November, when bitter cold set in, noted Robert Scales, a retired major general and former head of the Army War College.
Scales said some analysts are overly concerned about the prospect of fighting in desert heat. But he said wilting temperatures - and dust that increases the need for maintenance for tanks and equipment - could slow an operation in which speed is essential.
"The key is rapid movement," he said. "You've got to get to Baghdad quickly. You've got to shut the country down."
The last time that tens of thousands of U.S. troops assembled in the Middle East for a possible invasion of Iraq, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf was mindful of the blistering heat that comes early to the desert region.
"We had to think about the weather," the Desert Storm commander recalled. "It would do our troops and equipment no good if we dawdled until summer returned."
But the 1991 invasion of Iraq ended by the close of February. This time, U.S. and allied troops won't be in place until then, and possibly later.
One Army officer, who requested anonymity, recalled working as a kind of referee - an observer controller - at the Army's National Training Center in California. The sprawling, desolate stretch of the Mojave is the size of Rhode Island, and it is where soldiers arrive throughout the year to practice desert warfare.