The shape of an Iraq invasion

Attack would blend swift surgical strikes with backup by 200,000 ground troops.

Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, surrounded by photographs of his service in the 1991 Gulf War, sits in his office at a sprawling US Army base once again wearing tan desert fatigues.

Waging another war against Iraq "won't be tougher" than last time, predicts Colonel Twitty, commander of a Kuwait-bound heavy infantry battalion. "Our capability is much stronger than theirs. We would be successful."

Such confidence, widespread in the American military, underpins a bold US war plan that envisions ending the rule of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with speed, precision strikes, and – above all – the shock of an overwhelming force.

The Pentagon is leaving no doubt that it is poised to execute the plan should Mr. Hussein fail to comply with a tough new UN disarmament resolution. "The Iraqi regime has a choice to make. He [Hussein] can give up his weapons of mass destruction [WMD] or, as the president has said, he will lose power," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday.

Indeed, the mobilization of US forces for a war with Iraq is well under way, as Navy battle groups, Army troops, vehicles, and attack helicopters, Air Force long-range bombers as well as US Central Command headquarters elements all move into position in the Gulf region.

"We are watching the staging happen now," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division in the Gulf War. "Most of the ground forces will sprint into place at the last minute."

Driven by the goals of decapitating Mr. Hussein's regime and preventing chemical and biological attacks against US troops and neighboring countries, while also minimizing US and Iraqi casualties and damage to Iraq's infrastructure – the plan is both optimistic and prudent.

On one hand, it reflects a belief by US commanders that the bulk of Iraqi military forces and civilians could quickly turn against the regime if a lightning US military invasion made the collapse of Mr. Hussein's government appear imminent.

On the other, it provides for putting in place a massive US air, sea, and ground force of an estimated 200,000 troops – likely including four US Army divisions, a Marine division, and one British division – able to wage a more prolonged war if Iraqi resistance proves stiffer than expected, as well as to stabilize Iraq in the wake of Hussein's overthrow.

In this sense, the plan appears to reflect a compromise between what insiders say was the civilian Pentagon leadership's desire for an innovative war plan relying heavily on air power and Special Operations Forces, as well as possibly Iraqi opposition forces – and Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks' concern with deploying a large enough ground force to handle worst-case scenarios, such as drawn-out urban warfare.

"Soldiers, especially, know that war has a tendency to go in unplanned directions," says Mackubin Owens, a strategist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Indeed, in terms of size, scope, and sheer firepower, the Iraq plan has been dubbed "Desert Storm Light," after the Gulf War that involved more than 500,000 troops. "We risk a political and military disaster if we don't put adequate air, ground, and sea forces in the area to overwhelm the opposition," says General McCaffrey.

Conceptually, however, senior US military officials say the plan shares similarities with the relatively small-scale 1989 invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause. The regime-change operation, viewed as largely successful in the military, unseated Gen. Manuel Noriega through a surgical "coup de main" that minimized civilian casualties and collateral damage. In a rapid, strategic airlift, some 14,000 US air assault troops struck dozens of key targets simultaneously on Dec. 20, 1989, destroying organized resistance by Panamanian defense forces and paramilitary "dignity battalions" within the first 24 hours.

The strategy reflects a fundamental change in US warfare from the slow massing of forces for linear battles, to the vertical use of more rapid, dispersed forces, senior US commanders say. The change is possible due to dramatic technological advances – such as aerial drones that allow 24-hour day and night battlefield surveillance, and a far higher percentage of precision munitions – that allow US forces to see and strike targets from a greater distance, more quickly, with greater lethality.

Key elements of a US invasion, according to current and former US defense and military officials and experts, would include:

• A near simultaneous air and ground campaign. US stealth bombers and fighters armed with JDAM guided missiles and other precision munitions would strike hard at core leadership targets such as Hussein's palaces and elite security forces, suspected WMD sites, and military command facilities.

• Meanwhile, a three-sided insertion of US troops would take place. In Western Iraq, troops would seek to prevent Iraqi missile attacks on Israel and other neighbors. In the northern Kurdish territory, where Iraqi opposition leaders say the CIA and possibly Special Forces troops have already scouted out airfields, troops would set up staging and refuelling bases. In the south, troops would move in from Kuwait to seize key facilities around the port of Basra.

• A psychological operations campaign, which is under way in parts of Iraq already, would drop leaflets and transmit radio broadcasts warning Iraqi troops not to leave their barracks or launch chemical weapons attacks. A "blackout bomb" could temporarily short out electrical grids in cities, preventing Hussein from using TV to spread propaganda, says John Pike, an analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.

• Humanitarian missions aimed at providing basic necessities to Iraqis would also likely be carried out in tandem with military operations, as they were in Afghanistan.

One of the worst nightmare scenarios for American forces would be if Hussein can persuade loyalists to hold out in cities, requiring US forces to come in at the risk of inflicting high civilian casualties, says Mr. Pike.

Still, several analysts predict that a US-led war to oust Hussein would last no more than a few weeks.

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