More than any other country, Iraq is a nation under arms--a society dominated to an unparalleled degree by a war machine that consumes fully a quarter of the country's oil-rich treasure and half of its able-bodied men.
Already Iraq's army is the fifth largest in the world, a million men and growing, larger in raw numbers than the U.S. Army and Marine Corps combined. Currently mobilizing still more men, U.S. analysts now believe, Baghdad soon will have boosted that force by half, handing weapons and uniforms to three of every four men between the ages of 15 and 49. And each of these soldiers is held to a standard of unquestioning loyalty to one man: Saddam Hussein.
"In many ways, Iraq is like the Soviet Union: A great hell of a big military establishment," said a U.S. official. "It's their chief industry. They produce dates and oil and weapons"--and little else, he said.
But the Goliath of the Middle East has critical weaknesses, shortcomings that U.S. military planners will seek to exploit if the current standoff in the desert should become a shooting war.
The Iraqi army is an experienced, highly disciplined and well-equipped force--capable even of a complex helicopter-borne assault like the commando raid 10 days ago that seized the emir's palace in Kuwait city long before heavy tanks arrived to secure the captured capital.
The army's loyalty to Hussein is enforced by a code that imposes death for failure, with one sadly blundering general executed by the dictator himself in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War.
And in its current posture, dug in around Kuwait, it is an army on its firmest ground, a force that by experience and doctrine is most formidable on defense.
Also, Iraq--by Third World standards at least--has developed a formidable munitions industry, developing even such relatively sophisticated military hardware as ballistic missiles, airborne radar and chemical and nuclear weapons.
There are weaknesses, however.
The Iraqi senior staff is riddled with incompetents chosen not for military prowess but for allegiance to Hussein, according to American analysts.
Only about a third of the huge army's soldiers are experienced, front-line combat troops.
And despite the skill of its veteran field commanders in holding defensive ground, they are considered less impressive when called on to attack, potentially inept at maneuvering large numbers of troops and tanks when confronted with the unexpected.
Iraq's air force is large but weak, its air defenses primitive by Western standards, its navy virtually non-existent.
The bottom line, according to a U.S. government analyst who has spent years studying the Iraqi military: "Israel would kick the heck out of them. We would kick the heck out of them."
That confidence goes to the presumed ability of U.S. forces to repel an Iraqi attack. No one, however, is speaking of trying to dislodge the 150,000-member Iraqi force now dug into fortified positions in southern Kuwait. The U.S. force, even if it grows to the projected 100,000 troops and even with America's vastly superior air and naval power, is unlikely to prevail in such a struggle without massive losses of men and equipment.
The stakes are huge for both sides. The United States is risking thousands of young soldiers and its prestige as a world leader. Its economy is already perched on the edge of a recession, and further disruption in world oil supplies caused by a full-scale Middle East war could drive the United States into a recession.
The risks for Hussein are literally life or death, analysts say. He is likely to be toppled and killed if this adventure fails, although he is not now considered to be in jeopardy of a rebellion within the military.
"Saddam is both feared and admired," said a senior U.S. analyst. "The guy is very calculating, very smart and in a way, very charismatic. The guy is also a thug. He's very brutal and he's very ruthless."
A senior U.S. government analyst said that the possibility of a military-led coup against Hussein is "zip"--zero.
But the penalty for failure in the Iraqi army, and in Iraqi politics, is "they carry you out feet first," this official noted.
That fate may befall Hussein himself if he is humiliated in the current standoff against U.S. and allied forces. The sentence probably would be carried out not by military officers, who have distanced themselves from politics, but by the Revolutionary Command Council, the regime's supreme ruling body.
But Hussein has shown an ability in the past when he runs up against a brick wall--as he did after his invasion of Iran in 1980, which launched the Iran-Iraq War--to pull back, dig in and fight a war of attrition. U.S. officials think this is his most likely course of action now, given the huge forces being marshaled against him.
Ever since that 1980 invasion, the Iraqi people have been made to suffer to support the dictator's huge war machine. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London estimates Iraq's gross domestic product at $45 billion, of which $12.9 billion--more than 25%--is spent on defense.
No other nation approaches that percentage of national wealth devoted to the military. The Soviet Union spends between 15% and 20% of its economic output on arms; the United States devotes about 6% to the military, and Israel--Hussein's sworn enemy--just under 15%.
Nor does any other nation call upon so many of its men to take up arms. Iraq has 2.1 million able-bodied men between the ages of 15 and 49. By U.S. estimates, 1.1 million of them are already in the army and another 400,000 have been called for duty and are being assigned to military units.
"There's a large reserve call-up under way. Soon you'll see (an army of) 1.5 million, the nation in arms, everyone in uniform. They're approaching 80 full divisions," a government analyst said.
The quality of the massive force is mixed, other analysts note. The elite front-line units, including the battle-tested and fiercely disciplined Republican Guards, number about 240,000, with a skilled support cadre of 60,000 more, according to Anthony H. Cordesman, a former government intelligence specialist now on the staff of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
These 300,000 first-quality troops include 20 brigades of special forces who can carry out commando raids, perform reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines and pull off nighttime lightning raids like the successful assault on the Kuwaiti palace Aug. 2. The elite forces also include Iraq's chemical corps, which honed its skills in battle against the Iranians.
The Iraqi army's second echelon includes about 400,000 regular army troops who are not nearly as high-quality as the first group, Cordesman said. "Some small units can be very good, but the overall units might not be."
The third group, which brings the total to more than 1 million, includes a large number of raw recruits, many with only two to four weeks of training, older reservists and veterans of the Iran-Iraq War called back to service, experts said.
"They may wear regular army uniforms, but they are not warriors in any sense," Cordesman said. "This is a much lower-grade force. They're being used to occupy space, take defensive positions, set up communications. There's nothing dishonest about the 1 million figure, but it's extremely misleading as a measure of combat capability."
Beyond the regular army is a group estimated at as many as 850,000 members who can be quickly formed into a People's Militia. These poorly trained and undisciplined troops were the cannon fodder of the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian commanders often sought out militia troops for attack, knowing that they would run at the first sound of gunfire.
In addition to the regular armed forces are five separate secret police and intelligence services, numbering an estimated 100,000.
The ethnic composition of the Iraqi military mirrors that of the larger society, roughly 60% Shiite Muslims and 40% from the ruling Sunni sect. At the higher ranks, however, there appears to be some discrimination, with a disproportionate number of Sunnis serving as senior commanders and generals, U.S. analysts said.
Virtually no Iraqi male escapes service in one of the military arms, noted W. Seth Carus, a Middle East military analyst at the Naval War College Foundation in Newport, R.I.
"Saddam (Hussein) has expanded the military and the security apparatus to control the population. But by bringing all these young men into the military and other security organizations, you have instruments of controlling them and making them guilty of what you do to the rest of the population," Carus said.
An administration official said that Iraq is the closest thing the world has today to an "old-fashioned Eastern European police state."
At the top, the military has serious and longstanding problems, analysts said, starting with Hussein, a self-appointed field marshal who never served in the army.
"Up through corps commander, they're pretty good," said a U.S. official who monitors the Middle East. "Above that, there's what I call a 'rubber layer'--things bounce pretty crazy. Uncles, nephews, cousins populate these critical upper levels. At critical points in the military are people who are there because of political loyalty."
Hussein's insistence on total allegiance also reaches down to the lowest levels of his troops. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Sunday that Iraqi soldiers who are absent without leave are shot to death and their families are sent the bill for the ammunition used in the execution.
Cordesman traces these problems directly to Hussein.
"He over-centralizes, he's extremely insecure, he does not recognize or reward competence properly. It's dangerous to become too good a leader. Hussein tolerates some competent corps and division commanders. But he rotates many, some disappear, some have accidents and some have actually been shot," Cordesman said.
Hussein himself shot the general responsible for botching the critical battle for the Iranian city of Khorramshahr in 1982, the last major battle of the war fought on Iranian soil, officials said. After misreading the enemy's intentions, misdeploying his troops and miscalculating when to counterattack, the general was summoned under armed guard to Baghdad, where he was summarily court-martialed. Hussein personally put a bullet through the officer's head, according to U.S. accounts.
The quality of the Iraqi army's officer corps reportedly has increased significantly in the last three years. "Up until 1988, the performance of the army left a great deal to be desired. They showed very little tactical flexibility; very little ability to plan blitzkrieg type operations," Carus said.
But the army adopted new tactics in the closing days of the war with Iran that allowed it to win several key engagements and settle the war on favorable terms. It also began using medium-range rockets it had bought or developed to pulverize Iranian cities, and that missile force has grown in both numbers and quality, Carus said.
Although U.S. officials discount recent reports that Hussein ordered the executions of 100 officers who refused to participate in the Kuwaiti invasion, there are persistent reports of dissatisfaction in the military.
If that dissatisfaction--and the so-called "rubber layer"--sometimes leaves Iraqi forces poorly led, its army's steel and iron generally more than make up for it.
With about 6,000 battle tanks, 300 fighter planes and a vast array of missiles, Iraqi war-making equipment is impressive by any standard.
In its top-line stockpile are battle-tested weapons that have earned stellar reputations in the decade's few wars: the Soviet T-72 tank, the Chinese Silkworm missile, the French Mirage fighter and the Exocet tactical missile, which almost sank the U.S. guided-missile frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1987.
That size and strength permitted Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran to fight with leaden but crushing force, like the neighborhood bully who is slower than the others but too big to be hurt by their blows.
Epic clashes saw the Iraqi army deploy as many as 1,000 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery--a scale of battle not seen since World War II. These were largely set-piece battles of attrition, with Iraq wearing down its opponent and launching only well-rehearsed attacks.
"They can put a lot of firepower in whatever they choose to do," one government expert said.
But according to other analysts, the value of the weapons may be less impressive than mere numbers would suggest. Beneath the high-quality surface are inventories that are indisputably second-tier: for each of the fearsome T-72 tanks in Iraq's arsenal there are five outmoded T-54s.
"A lot of this is usual Soviet second-rate ordnance," said Carus. "And a lot is generic Soviet-Chinese kinds of stuff."
At the same time, air defenses, bristling with Soviet missiles and similar French gear, are believed to be stripped-down versions vulnerable to American attack. Communications, advanced by Third World standards, are believed susceptible to advanced jamming techniques.
And the French-trained air force--while "the most competent in the Arab world," according to Benjamin Lambeth, a RAND Corp. analyst--displayed against Iran a glaring lack of accuracy in its bombing and little aggressiveness in air-to-air battle.
Still, a U.S. official cautioned, "You can't disregard 550 combat aircraft."
The Iraq defensive mind-set reflects a legacy of formal Soviet training that has long left Iraqi students obedient to an extreme. When battle does not advance as laid out in the textbook, military experts say, the Iraqis often do not know what to do.
"The command and control is over-centralized," said Cordesman, the congressional expert. "They are too rigid, too slow to react."
To overcome that inertia, the Iraqis in recent years have turned to extremes. Chemical weapons, first envisioned as a last-ditch tool of defense, were adapted to the attack to help overcome a lack of maneuverability.
Nerve gas, spread by bombs or artillery, became a superior form of firepower to pin down and overrun defending forces. Mustard gas, far more persistent, substituted for quick reaction in keeping attacking forces at bay. And in a telling tactic in its blitzkrieg of Kuwait, the Iraqi army, now boasting 20 special forces brigades, demonstrated a previously unseen ability to stage a commando strike.
According to a U.S. official with access to intelligence reports on the attack, helicopter-borne Iraqi special forces flew ahead of the tank attack to capture Kuwait's international airport and clear its runways for transport planes that followed.
The operation, much like vanguard operations in the U.S. invasion of Panama, allowed armored vehicles and assault troops to roll onto the runway and then attack the emir's palace long before the main tank columns reached the capital.
Behind Iraq's vast military is a growing armaments industry producing everything from rifle bullets to ballistic missiles. U.S. intelligence agencies consider Iraq the world's largest producer of chemical weapons, and Iraq is known to have active programs to produce biological and nuclear weapons.
It has never used biological weapons in battle, and analysts believe that Iraq's nuclear program is at least five years away from producing an atomic bomb or missile warhead.
Carus cited as an example of the ambitious weapons programs Iraq has embarked upon with foreign assistance an undertaking known as Project 395, a $400-million program to produce solid-fuel surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.
With the help of West German and Austrian companies, Iraq has constructed state-of-the-art production facilities for the rocket propellant at Hillah, south of Baghdad, and to actually assemble the missiles at Falluja, west of the Iraqi capital.
The Iraqis are already producing a ground-to-ground missile with a 400-mile range known as the Husayn, a variant of the Soviet Scud rocket. They lobbed dozens of these inaccurate but terrifying missiles into Tehran in the late stages of their war with Iran during the so-called "War of the Cities."
In addition, the Iraqis are believed to have the best stocks of rocket artillery in the Third World. They are producing a rocket with a 35-mile range modeled on the Brazilian Astros 2, a copy of the Soviet Frog 7, and their own 55-mile-range Liath rocket that is reportedly capable of carrying a chemical warhead.
Working with Yugoslav technicians, the Iraqis are also building a 30-mile-range surface-to-surface rocket known as the Ababil, which is designed to carry a sophisticated cluster-bomb warhead co-developed with the Chileans, Carus said.
Other Iraqi munitions projects include infrared and television-guided bombs and laser-guided missiles. Baghdad is working on advanced naval mines and remote-piloted "drone" aircraft for battlefield surveillance.
They have also developed indigenous radar planes similar to the U.S. airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, although the planes are said to be of questionable quality.
Morale in Hussein's military appears to Western analysts to be high, for the moment. All agree that the seizure of Kuwait was skillfully carried out. But, said Cordesman, "The flush of excitement is always followed by some sober thought. As time drags on, the Iraqi army will be most vulnerable to thinking about the last war Saddam Hussein dragged them into, how much it cost, how many lives were lost, how much it cost their families."
Cordesman noted that most of Hussein's troops have spent their entire adult lives in war. "That has made them into an effective force but at the same time has created problems for Saddam (Hussein)," the analyst said. "He's most vulnerable if it becomes clear this is not a vast world conspiracy against Iraq but an effort to halt one man."