CAIRO — HIGHLY placed Egyptian military sources express total confidence that the United States-led multinational force in the Gulf region could defeat Iraq in less than one month. Independent Western military experts here, however, caution that in their eagerness to go to war, the Egyptians may be over-optimistic.
``It might well be that they are right, but it might equally well be the other way around,'' says a European military observer in Cairo. ``There can be no doubt that eventually a Gulf campaign would be successful. But it is a matter of time and of political repercussions.''
The Egyptian intelligence analysis is that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein believes he can inflict enough casualties on coalition forces to turn US public opinion quickly against a war.
``He believes that if he goes for a long war, he will defeat [President] Bush at home,'' says a senior Egyptian military officer. But ``he will not be able to inflict mass casualties on the allied forces as he thinks he can. He does not have the means.''
Egyptian sources say Saddam's expectations are shaped by the Vietnam War, where US resolve was broken over time and where enemy soldiers were able to sustain years of saturation bombing without capitulating.
But against far more numerous, more technically advanced, and more heavily armed US, British, and French aircraft - and with no thick jungle to provide cover - Iraqi soldiers will be dangerously vulnerable, the Egyptians say.
``In Vietnam there was forest, here it is like a playground,'' says the Egyptian military source.
``He's thinking with his experience against Iran in a ground war,'' adds the source, referring to Iraq's costly eight-year war against Iran. ``He doesn't realize the awful force now arrayed against him. By the fourth air strike, he will not be able to defend as strongly as he believes.''
``Saddam believes Iraqi soldiers will hold their positions,'' says the Egyptian officer. ``We have doubts about that because of the psychological and morale effects of air strikes.''
On the other hand, argues the European military observer, the estimated 545,000 Iraqi soldiers are well dug in around Kuwait against some 680,000 coalition forces. ``Who can really say with reasonable assurance how and with what decisiveness the Iraqi forces are going to fight?'' he asks. Iraqi foot-soldiers fought courageously in the war with Iran, he points out, ``and under a tough regime there is a very strict form of discipline that is enforced by stringent measures.''
While Egyptian Army leaders are confident that the technological prowess of the US-led forces will overwhelm the Iraqis, doubters insist that they will only be dislodged from Kuwait by an infantry assault that could be long, difficult, and costly.
``Berms, oil ditches - they do all that well,'' says the Egyptian military officer of the Iraqis. ``Saddam will use oil-burns, all the means he can, to paralyze the American offensive.''
On the ground the alliance does not hold the two-to-one numerical advantage considered minimally necessary for an assault. This is particularly troublesome, warns the European military observer, because the Arab contingents that constitute more than one fourth of the allied force have not been fully integrated.
``They are simply not capable of participating in a coordinated attack because there is simply no joint command system,'' he says.
``I really have doubts about the shortage of conventional ground forces - whether the imbalance in numbers can really be made good by the advantage in weapons technology,'' cautions the European military analyst.
Egyptian officials say there is a high probability that after saturation bombing Saddam would surrender or be overthrown. If this did not occur, the US-led forces would launch a massive ground operation against the kind of Iraqi defensive positions that worked well against Iran, but that would be overwhelmed by the mobile, high-tech army now arrayed against Iraq, they say.
``We are very confident about that, we have been in Iraq,'' adds the Egyptian officer, who notes that Egyptian intelligence estimates are partly based on the reporting of 150 military advisors who returned from Iraq in late September.
The Egyptians concur with the widespread expectation that Iraq will seek to divide the coalition by bringing Israel into any war. Both Syrian and Egyptian leaders have threatened to rethink their position if Israel becomes involved in the conflict.
They predict that Iraq would use some of its enhanced, Soviet-made Scud missiles stationed in western Iraq to target Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Haifa. Armed with 220 pounds of conventional explosives, each missile could destroy a four-block radius, although the missiles are believed to be accurate only within plus-or-minus six miles.
Egyptian sources estimate that air attacks, ground operations, and cleanup will take no more than three weeks. If a war lasts that long, US casualties could reach 2,000 but would be much higher on the Iraqi side.
Whether or not this estimate is accurate, says the Western military source, the real test is the number of casualties that can be sustained politically at home. With Saddam unfettered by public opinion, it is a point the Iraqi leader has sought to exploit.
``I can afford to give up 25,000, but Bush cannot afford to give up 1,000. This is my strength,'' Saddam reportedly said recently.
But amidst all the predictions, the likely conduct of an unprecedented war remains uncertain.
``There are so many people who say they know what is going to happen,'' says the Western military analyst. ``Nobody knows what's going to happen.''