Middle East

Iraq: In all but name, the war's on
By Marc Erikson

How do you tell a war has begun? This is not the 17th or 18th century. There are no highfalutin' declarations. Troops don't line up in eyesight of each other. There are no drum rolls and bugle calls, no calls of "Chaaa...rge!". When did the Vietnam War begin? When, for that matter, World War I? When mobilizations were ordered setting in motion irreversible chains of events or at the time of the formal declarations of war?

The lines of battle and the timelines to overt battle and full-scale combat have become fluid. Consider this: At the beginning of this year, when US President George W Bush started talking ever more in earnest about taking out Saddam Hussein and signed an intelligence order directing the CIA to undertake a comprehensive, covert program to topple the Iraqi president, including authority to use lethal force to capture him, the US and putative ally Britain had approximately 50,000 troops deployed in the region around Iraq.

By now, this number has grown to over 100,000, not counting soldiers of and on naval units in the vicinity. It's been a build-up without much fanfare, accelerating since March and accelerating further since June. And these troops are not just sitting on their hands or twiddling their thumbs while waiting for orders to act out some type of D-Day drama. Several thousand are already in Iraq. They are gradually closing in and rattling Saddam's cage. In effect, the war has begun.

For sticklers for details, here are some numbers and locations of the allied troop build-up gathered from local sources in the various countries where US and British forces deploy or from open allied sources: Prior to the past seven months' troop movements, there were 25,000 US troops (army, air force) in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates and some 20,000 British troops, mainly in Oman.

Since March, 12,000 US troops have been added to Kuwait (8,000) and Qatar (4,000) and 5,000 Brits to Oman, bringing the April/May total to 62,000. In late June, the Turkish foreign ministry reported heavy air traffic of US military transport planes aimed at increasing the number of US troops in southern Turkey from 7,000 to 25,000 by the end of July. Also in June, a contingent of 1,700 British Royal Marines were re-deployed from Afghanistan to Kuwait and a 250-man, highly-specialized German NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) warfare battalion equipped with "Fuchs" (fox) armored vehicles has been in Kuwait since early this year.

An additional 2,400 US troops are deployed in Jordan and, according to Jordanian news agency Petra, are being reinforced by another 4,000 arriving since August 12 at Aqaba for joint exercises with the Jordanian army. Already, 1,800 US troops (mostly Special Forces) are inside Iraq, at least since the end of March and, in fact, units there were visited two months ago by CIA director George Tenet during a side trip from Israel and Palestine. Another 2,000-3,000 US troops are in semi-permanent deployment in the Negev and Sinai deserts in accordance with old international agreements. On August 9, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that 5,000 Turkish troops had entered northern Iraq and taken over the Bamerni air base north of Mosul. These numbers add up to about 105,000 US and allied troops on bases surrounding and inside Iraq.

The number of US and British aircraft in the region (land-based and on three US and one British carrier) cannot be determined with any real precision. But they greatly outnumber Iraqi air forces (not to speak of their vast qualitative superiority) and are in the process of being reinforced. Munitions and equipment for German Tornado fighters have been pre-positioned in Turkey.

The Saudi announcement of August 7 that US forces will not be permitted to use Saudi bases for an attack on Iraq causes the US military no major headache. The US has quietly moved munitions, equipment and communications gear to the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar from Saudi Arabia in recent months. Further, construction of a large new military camp in Kuwait has just been completed. Allied ground troops, air forces and naval units now on hand are sufficient to carry the fight to Iraq from a virtual stand-still, certainly sufficient for the "small-war scenario" (75-100,000 troops) on which US Central Command chief General Tommy Franks briefed George Bush on August 6.

What are these allied forces up against? As the head of the US Defense Policy Board Richard Perle put it succinctly the other day, Iraq today has one third of its 1990-91 capabilities, "but it's the same third, just 11 years older". That's something of a characteristic exaggeration by the "Prince of Darkness", but not by very much. Iraqi ground forces now number 375,000, less than 40 percent of their 1990 pre-Gulf-War strength. Of that number, 70,000 are in the Republican Guard (half of the 1990 strength) and another 25,000 in the Baghdad-based Special Republican Guard assigned exclusively to protecting Saddam Hussein and maintaining political control in the city (no other troops are allowed in). The remaining 280,000-man regular army has major morale problems and is made up largely of unwilling conscripts, many from the oppressed Shi'ite population, who consider themselves ethnic Iranians rather than Arabs.

Principal equipment is 2,200 tanks of Soviet-era vintage (including a few hundred T-72s) and 1,900 artillery pieces. The Iraqi air force is reduced to 130 attack aircraft and 180 jet fighters, but only about 90 of the latter are combat ready at any given time. The navy no longer exists.

Iraq's anti-aircraft defenses consist of some 120 batteries dispersed around the country, and are as technologically degraded as the rest of Iraq's rusting arsenal. The number of Scud missiles is between a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 36. Of these, between six and 16 are Scud-B (Al-Husayn) with a range of 600 kilometers. The remainder are plain Scuds with a 300-kilometer range. The Scud-B missiles are the only ones that pose problems because they can reach targets outside Iraq. They are very inaccurate, however, and have numerous serious technical problems. The biggest of these is that they tend to break up during their descent phase. Their theoretical accuracy is 3,000 meters CEP (Circular Error Probability). This makes them militarily useless, and useful only for terrorizing urban populations if warheads contain chemical or biological agents.

Ongoing actions by US and allied forces around and in Iraq in part are in line with guidelines provided in Bush's presidential order to oust Saddam:

  • Increased support to Iraqi opposition groups and forces inside and outside Iraq including money, weapons, equipment, training and intelligence information;
  • Expanded efforts to collect intelligence within the Iraqi government, military, security service and overall population;
  • Use of CIA and US Special Forces teams, similar to those deployed in Afghanistan since September 11. Such forces would be authorized to kill Saddam if they were acting in self-defense.

    But in part the actions go well beyond that. In Kurdish Iraq - according to Israeli sources - US army engineers are working around the clock to build a series of six to eight airstrips to serve fighter planes and helicopters that will provide air cover for invading ground forces. The airfields are strung along a western axis from the city of Zako southwest to the city of Sinjar; a central axis from Zako south to Arbil; and an eastern axis from Arbil to Sulimaniyeh.

    Special Forces teams are involved in on-the-ground military target identification, mapping out Scud and anti-aircraft battery locations. They are also helping set up, equip and train Kurdish militias and are cooperating closely with Turkish counterparts engaged in the same activities in Turkoman regions.

    US and British aircraft are probing Iraqi defenses beyond the no-fly zones close to Baghdad. On August 6, they destroyed the Iraqi air command and control center at al-Nukhaib in the desert between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The center is wired to fiber optic networks installed last year by Chinese companies. New types of precision-guided bombs disabled the fiber optic system. The broad aim of recent bombing runs is to thoroughly disrupt Iraqi command, control and communications functions.

    In light of these developments, the various "war plans" bandied about in the US press - with the New York Times and the Washington Post trying to outdo each other with the latest scoops - are largely irrelevant as such, whether it's the "Northern Alliance Option" (US troops and intelligence personnel aiding an attack by opposition forces); the original "Franks Plan" (massed attack involving some 250,000 troops); the "inside-out" approach (commando attacks on Baghdad and key Iraqi command centers first, followed by mopping-up action); or the "status-quo" or "do-nothing" option of continued containment of Saddam. Elements of all of these scenarios will eventually be seen as having been incorporated in the removal of the Iraqi leader.

    Equally irrelevant is speculation on the timing (September/October for the sake of surprise? January/February a la Gulf War to avoid the desert heat?) of "the" allied attack. Attacks of various kinds are ongoing. Their intensity and intrusiveness can increase at any time ... or decrease again. It's a game of options and contingencies, backed by ever increasing material capabilities; perhaps a game of prodding Saddam into a tactical mistake or a flight-forward reaction. Earlier this year, a British journalist asked Bush how exactly he was going to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He replied, "Wait and see." The journalist, like many of his colleagues, may well still be waiting - for lack of ability to see that the war is on. Some high-speed, high-intensity strikes may later be called "The Iraq War", but it began no later than March.

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    Aug 17, 2002

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