With all eyes on the cat-and-mouse game between Saddam Hussein and United Nations weapons inspectors, a marked shift in the U.S. war strategy for Iraq has been taking place outside of public view.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has approved a war plan for Iraq that owes more to D-day and World War II than to the 21st century vision of lightning-fast, flexible warfare that has become his hallmark.
For months, Rumsfeld prodded the U.S. Central Command to come up with a blueprint that reflected his demand for new tactics that combined the high-tech weaponry of modern air power with the stealth and agility of special operations. War plans were frequently returned to the Tampa, Fla.-based headquarters as not "imaginative" enough, according to senior officers on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Why, Rumsfeld kept asking, did Army Gen. Tommy Franks and his staff at Central Command doggedly insist on plans that entailed so much equipment, so many troops?
Last month, however, the Defense secretary surrendered to the traditionalists, secretly approving a blueprint for war in Iraq that has the American force relying heavily on tanks, artillery and heavy mechanized infantry.
The plan, reflected in deployment orders now cascading out of the Pentagon, does assign critical roles to air power, Special Forces and covert operators, according to Defense Department officials. They would attack the regime directly, destroy and capture weapons of mass destruction and foment rebellion.
But they would operate in subordination to the kind of ground assault the Army has trained and equipped itself to conduct in Europe since the beginning of the Cold War. If war comes, it will be no Afghanistan, no war of the future. After six or seven days of preparatory bombing, hundreds of tanks and a force of more than 200,000 soldiers and Marines would roll into Iraq from Kuwait.
The first objective would be capturing the southern Rumaila oil fields intact. Then, the force would pivot north, reaching the outskirts of the Baghdad megalopolis within two weeks, planners forecast.
At that point, they believe the stage would be set for Hussein's defeat. They expect their actions will result in a battle with the elite armored forces of his Republican Guard south of the capital, but this point in the war would come after the Guard had been heavily bombarded from the air, and so would present little challenge for U.S. armor. Planners expect that Iraq's regular army, less well equipped and motivated, might be persuaded to splinter as unit commanders realized the regime was finished.
Left in the wake of the fast-rolling U.S. assault would be thousands of liberated Iraqis, the core of an indigenous opposition force if needed. What Central Command planners dearly hope to avoid is urban warfare in the sprawling capital city of nearly 5 million people.
How much Rumsfeld's capitulation was governed by Washington politics is unclear. Civilian control of the military is unchallenged, and Rumsfeld has been especially insistent in asserting it. But there are political risks for civilian leaders who impose their own military theories on the uniformed services -- especially if there are setbacks.
Moreover, high-level military officers seem to agree on one thing. The diplomatic dance over U.N. weapons inspections offered time for the massive deployments of personnel and materiel required for a traditional approach -- an approach its proponents say could crush Iraqi resistance so quickly that fewer American lives will be at risk.
The cost in other terms could be considerable, however.
As tens of thousands of ground troops and their vast support infrastructure arrive in Kuwait, any options other than war fade further and further. This is the military corollary to the "Field of Dreams": If they come, you will use them.
A Normandy-style invasion of Iraq also heightens concerns about massive destruction, followed by a quagmire of quasi-colonial occupation. Both images provoke understandable unease, both in this country and abroad.
War planning for Iraq began soon after the attacks of Sept. 11. Central Command's Franks initially called for 350,000 troops and five aircraft carriers, according to Central Command officers involved in the planning. As the Afghanistan war raged, that shrank to 250,000 troops, with administration advisors pushing the idea that the CIA-created Iraqi National Congress and Kurdish fighters could be used as an alternative "proxy" force.
Rumsfeld, then and later, questioned the need for such a large American force. After all, precision weapons were much improved since the Gulf War, while Iraq's battlefield capability had declined.
Last March, many of Franks' subordinates also challenged the Florida-based command's insistence that air and ground operations begin simultaneously. They argued for -- and apparently won -- at least a week of advance bombing to degrade Iraqi air defenses and command and control, and to disrupt Iraq's response to a U.S. invasion.
For their part, Franks and the majority of his cohorts in the military leadership bristled at what seemed to be Rumsfeld's "elitist" bias toward special operations. The select units had a role to play, these generals said, but standing alone they would be at serious risk against even the depleted armor of Hussein.
Ground officers argued against any scenario that tried to win "on the cheap."
The fact that, throughout last summer and into the fall, U.S. forces remained bogged down in mopping-up operations in Afghanistan only strengthened the argument for committing significant ground forces -- an option that had been rejected after Sept. 11.
Meantime, the White House ironed out its marching orders for the military, adding new pressure to do it the old-fashioned way. The Pentagon has been given three priority missions in presidential directives:
* thwart any use of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq;
* depose Hussein;
* create conditions for a new democratic government in Iraq after the invasion. (In Pentagon planning, at least, the Iraqi opposition-in-exile appears to have been gently elbowed aside.)
According to senior Defense officials, the White House also levied two additional requirements that influenced military planning.
First, Iraq was to be preserved "as a unitary state, with its territorial integrity intact," according to a presidential directive signed in December.
Second, Iraq's oil infrastructure was to be protected as much as possible.
Both would require boots on the ground -- a lot of them.
Though the air component of Central Command has managed to extract only a week of bombing before ground troops advance, the plan still calls for opening with a blistering air bombardment of Iraqi air defenses, command and control, missiles, and suspected weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
Simultaneous special operations attacks would seek to capture facilities suspected of housing chemical and biological weapons. Airfields inside Iraq would be attacked to give U.S. forces greater operational flexibility, as well as to divert Iraqi energies.
As many as 500 sorties a day would be flown in the weeklong air attacks that follow. Targeting would focus on Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces, as well as Hussein's security apparatus and other critical elements of the regime. Regular army units would be hit sparingly, because planners hope to win over many of them.
Iraq's oil infrastructure, as well as most transportation and industrial targets, would be avoided in hopes of easing the burden of rebuilding the nation.
Even with a considerably smaller force than was available in 1991, air planners believe this initial aerial bombardment could spell the end of Hussein. More than 500 "smart" weapons and cruise missiles will be used in the opening hours alone. Impervious to weather conditions or time of day, as many as 3,000 such weapons could easily be used in a week.
On the ground, says a source familiar with briefings provided to Congress, three Republican Guard divisions are now dug in astride the approaches to Baghdad. If they tried to hold their ground and all went according to the Central Command plan, no one in the U.S. military thinks they would mean much in the face of the far superior U.S. armored force.
Even if victory were achieved on the battlefield, however, the endgame in Iraq still looks foggy.
And if air power and special operations did not root out Hussein, or if regular Iraqi forces did not switch sides, then the final battle could still be waged in the only place Hussein could still hold an advantage: the streets of Baghdad.