WASHINGTON — With the saber-rattling once again going on in the skies over Iraq, the question inevitably arises: How potent is Saddam Hussein's military machine?
The United States says its missile strikes and no-fly zone expansion in southern Iraq were intended to prevent the Iraqi leader from again threatening his neighbors in the oil-rich Gulf. But analysts who monitor the region paint a different picture of Iraq's military capabilities.
While Saddam has salvaged key parts of his war machine that was so badly savaged in the 1991 Gulf war, his army remains a shell of its former self, these analysts say. It may be able to conduct operations against lightly armed rebel Kurds inside Iraq, but it is in no shape to take on rival Iran or the American-led forces protecting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
"Saddam only has the capability of threatening his own countrymen," says Phillip Mitchell of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "To suggest that he poses a threat to Iran is a mistake. He has the ability to go into Kuwait if the West was unlikely to assist Kuwait, but he knows that is not the case."
None of this means that Saddam no longer poses a threat to regional stability. By backing one Kurdish rebel faction against its main rival, Saddam neutralized a US effort to topple him and changed the strategic balance in northern Iraq, reaffirming his deftness at political intrigue. In addition, some experts worry that his inability to reconstitute what was the Gulf's most powerful conventional military may feed his hunger to rebuild his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capabilities.
But Saddam's pursuit of those weapons and his military rebuilding efforts will remain in check as long as UN weapons inspections persist, the Western allies shield Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and - most importantly - a UN embargo on Iraqi oil sales remains in place.
The embargo has been the greatest obstacle to Saddam's quest to rejuvenate his military, which with the secret police, forms the bedrock of his iron rule. Denied revenues from the world's second largest petroleum deposits, Saddam has sought other means to repair the Gulf war damage suffered by his Army.
First, he has downsized. What was once a 1 million-man ground force has been pared to about 300,000 soldiers. Of those, analysts consider the only combat-capable contingents to be the elite Republican Guard, whose eight divisions are estimated at between 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers, and one or two ordinary infantry divisions. Additionally, Saddam employs a 14,000-strong Presidential Guard, headed by one of his sons to protect him, his family, and their numerous palaces.
The best equipment is reserved for the best troops, analysts say. The Iraqi leader has managed to keep about 450 Soviet-designed T-72 battle tanks in operation. That is less than half of the T-72s he had prior to the Gulf war and only about half of his self-propelled guns.
But the Army's overall mobility and logistics have been severely hampered by massive Gulf war losses of trucks that Saddam has been unable to make up, says Eisenstadt. And it has other mobility problems. "The country's main tire factory was in the south and was burned by Shiite rebels in 1991," he explains. "They have had a real shortage of tires and are supposedly buying them from Lebanon and anywhere else they can get them."
Saddam has bought other spare parts, such as Polish-made aircraft supplies, on the international market using revenues from oil smuggled out of Iraq via Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, analysts say. But these efforts have been insufficient, and the Army's large pre-Gulf war parts stocks are believed to be nearly depleted.
Pointing to two missiles fired at US planes over northern Iraq yesterday and the rebuilding of radar hit last week that prompted threats of US retaliation, analysts say large parts of Saddam's air defense system remain intact.
THEY say Gulf war attacks and last week's US cruise-missile strikes largely crippled Saddam's ability to hit targets above 10,000 feet, the height at which US, French, and British planes operate. But they say Saddam has large numbers of antiaircraft artillery, and fixed and mobile radar and missile systems that can hit lower flying aircraft.
The Iraqi Army is hurt, however, by a lack of airpower. Saddam once had some 700 aircraft. He now has only about 350, and only a fraction of those are believed to be airworthy.
It also suffers from poor morale. Like millions of civilians, troops don't have enough food, wages, and other essentials. That is regarded as tinder for some of the coup attempts that Saddam has successfully crushed.
To protect himself from such uprisings, he buys off his Republican and Presidential Guards with hefty pay increases, extra food handouts, and other privileges. Experts say Saddam periodically purges his officer corps and shifts troops around to ensure that they cannot forge ties to local political leaders.
All of this, says Ibrahim Karawan, head of the Middle East program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has helped divert energy and resources from the effort to rebuild the Army. "There has been more interest in regime security than in national security."