LONDON — IF war broke out in the Gulf, Iraqi forces could not hope to hold out against a well-coordinated attack for more than a few weeks, and might crumble in a matter of days. Nor could they be sure of being able to use chemical weapons effectively against mobile tank formations or well-defended air bases.
These are the views of leading strategists at the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). These analysts say that a war would almost certainly be severely destructive, with heavy losses on both sides. But the chances of a sudden and early collapse by the Iraqis are no better than 50-50.
Iraq's armed forces consist of seven elite divisions drawn from President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, plus more than 40 others organized essentially along infantry lines and lacking adequate logistical support for fighting a long war, said Col. Andrew Duncan, the institute's chief Middle East expert, at a press conference.
The bulk of the Iraqi Army, though large in numbers, Colonel Duncan added, lacks the mobility of the United States, British, and other formations that it would have to confront in battle.
Iraqi forces would be particularly vulnerable to air attack, and there are limits to how long Saddam would be able to hold out against opposing forces, the analysts say.
According to the latest estimates, Iraq's Army of 1 million men (plus reserves of some 850,000) has 5,500 tanks and more than 3,000 artillery pieces. It is supported by more than 530 combat aircraft, mostly Soviet-made.
More significant than the raw figures, however, is the way Saddam has deployed his forces, IISS experts say. More than half of his tanks, together with about a third of his troops, have been moved into Kuwait.
That concentration, the strategists say, is one reason why an early attack on Saddam's forces is ruled out.
It will not be until late October or early November that enough American, British, Egyptian, and Syrian tanks and armored vehicles will arrive in Saudi Arabia to match what Iraq has already deployed.
Col. Michael Dewar, the IISS's deputy director, said it was misleading to use Iraq's military performance in its eight-year war with Iran as a yardstick for predicting its performance against the multinational force assembling in Saudi Arabia.
``In the Gulf war, Iraqi divisions in many cases operated effectively, but they did not have to face the sophisticated array of air power that would be unleashed against them in the event of a shooting war with the United States, Britain, and other countries,'' Colonel Dewar said.
IISS analysts note that US and British air power would pose a severe threat to Iraqi divisions, which would be used mostly in static defensive formations. In addition, they say, the Iraqi air force would probably be outgunned, even though it is equipped with modern Soviet planes.
Fran,cois Heisbourg, the institute's director, is careful to point out that some Iraqi units could be expected to put up a strong fight. It would probably take time to defeat the elite formations, he said.
Concerns that Iraq's possession of chemical weapons would give Saddam an edge in battle were discounted by Duncan.
The Iraqis, he said, possessed a range of deadly chemical agents, but they would be difficult to use against mobile tank formations or air bases that were heavily defended with ground-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft.
``It would be easier to use chemical weapons against civilian targets than against military ones,'' Duncan added.
The IISS's annual survey of the world's armed forces, published Oct. 4, reports that Iraq has 16 new Soviet-supplied Fencer bombers with a range of more than 600 miles, and 12 new MiG-29 fighters.