U.S. military commanders, seeking to avoid an immediate, full-scale ground assault on Iraqi fortifications, have built into their battle plan a strategic pause that would follow an initial phase of intensive bombardment to give Iraq a final chance to withdraw from Kuwait.
U.S. officials have indicated that a Persian Gulf war would be pursued in phases: first an air attack to destroy Iraqi air defenses and missiles, then the bombing of Iraqi troop emplacements and finally an onslaught of ground and amphibious troops to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.
But the timing of the phases is a closely held secret, and officials have studiously avoided giving any hint that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be allowed to withdraw his army intact once war begins.
The strategic pause plan, relayed to members of Congress in briefings by senior military officials before last week’s historic vote on the use of force in the gulf, is designed to shorten the war and minimize casualties on both sides, sources said.
“Our military leaders understand the folly of risking thousands of American lives in an immediate ground invasion of Kuwait,” one lawmaker said after being briefed on the outlines of the U.S. war plan.
“Whenever Day One is, you’ll see an aerial attack focusing on air defenses, air capabilities, missile sites, weapons facilities--chemical, biological and conventional,” the lawmaker said. “Then there will be a pause to see what Iraq does.”
Senior Pentagon officials confirmed that the United States plans to halt--at least briefly--all attacks on Iraqi targets after the first phase is completed to provide a final opportunity for a diplomatic solution before the massive armies engage in ground combat.
The strategic pause concept also addresses a question of increasing concern to U.S. policy-makers: Should Iraq’s military be utterly destroyed, or should Baghdad be allowed to retain a significant defensive capability to counterbalance Syrian and Iranian forces in a postwar Middle East?
In addition, the planned bombing halt would afford a chance for demoralized or terrorized Iraqi troops to surrender to allied forces, even if Hussein refuses to capitulate to the U.S.-led coalition, officials said.
Citing an estimated 1,200 defections from the Iraqi army over the last several months, U.S. officials question whether Hussein’s forces would have the will to fight after days of round-the-clock bombardment by an alliance with 2,000 combat aircraft and virtual mastery of the skies.
About 800 Iraqi soldiers have fled to neighboring Turkey since the beginning of the crisis, according to Turkish officials. “We know from Iraqi deserters that they are fed up, that they don’t want to fight,” Turkish President Turgut Ozal said in an interview last week. “They all say how demoralized the entire army is.”
Ozal also said that the West and the media “have made the mistake of overestimating the Iraqi army.” The defectors “tell us that their army would cut and run when faced with the overwhelming, massive firepower of the coalition forces,” he said.
“A massive air attack could conceivably be so devastating that you’d have very, very large defections of Iraqi ground forces,” said Seymour Weiss, former director of political-military affairs at the State Department and currently an adviser to the Defense Department.
“I’m not at all persuaded these are battle-hardened heroes willing to die for Saddam’s 19th province,” Weiss added. “If brought under a sufficient weight of attack, they may decide there’s something better than sitting there and waiting to be destroyed.”
But Bush Administration officials argue that it would be imprudent, and perhaps fatal, to assume that the 545,000 Iraqi troops in Kuwait and southern Iraqi would not fight.
“Morale may not be high, but discipline and fear are,” said a senior Administration official, noting that only about 400 of the Iraqi defectors have left the main force in and around Kuwait. Given the fact that rations are modest, conditions severe and the risk of combat substantial, he said the percentage of Iraqi defections does not seem high.
Another official said that while the U.S. war plan envisions attacks on territory within Iraq to deny the enemy sanctuary and to envelop forces in Kuwait, there is a danger that such moves might be interpreted as a U.S. effort to occupy Iraq as well as Kuwait.
“There are indications that many Iraqi troops have reservations or are opposed to the invasion of Kuwait,” the official said. “But once they’re fighting on their own soil for their own soil, then they may give everything they’ve got. We want to try to prevent that.”
A recently declassified Army assessment of the Iraqi military concluded that Iraq’s officer corps “will not hesitate to fight with great tenacity if they perceive a major threat to Iraq’s vital security.” The report said that U.S. troops eventually would have to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in a bloody and difficult ground campaign.
The question of how thoroughly to destroy the Iraqi army has begun to occupy U.S. planners, who assume that the United States will win the conflict and must consider the postwar balance of power in the region.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of all U.S. forces in the region, said in a recent interview that it is not necessarily in the alliance’s interest to wipe out the Iraqi army, because a defenseless Iraq could fall prey to the territorial ambitions of Iran or Syria.
“There is a growing awareness about the dangers to Iraq if the army is destroyed, that we can’t go too far,” one senior U.S. official said. “But at the same time, professional soldiers want to do the job and get out. Schwarzkopf will do what he needs to do to win.”
But Weiss, who is a member of the Defense Policy Board, an independent group that advises the Pentagon on defense issues, said that military force is “too blunt an instrument” to produce the kind of delicate balancing of regional powers envisioned by the Administration.
“For our part, destroying (Hussein’s) military power as completely as we are capable of doing would seem worthwhile. Leaving him, or his henchmen, to stay in power and over time rebuild Iraq’s military power . . . is not sensible,” he added.
Times staff writer Alan C. Miller contributed to this report.