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With forces at ready, war could be swift

US troop counts in the Mideast rise, ready for a campaign very different from Gulf War.

By Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2002


The hammer of US military force is almost ready for use against Iraq, even as the diplomatic struggle between Washington and Baghdad continues.

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There are now some 80,000 uniformed American personnel in the region, counting troops deployed in Afghanistan. While an actual attack would likely require a final sprint deployment of strike units, most of the elements for war are now in place, as symbolized by this week's command-and-control exercise in Qatar.

Thus at a crucial moment in the standoff, with Iraq defying the US to prove it retains weapons of mass destruction, President Bush's ability to strike against his foe has likely moved from the theoretical to the actual.

"Military power is [now] a backdrop giving teeth to the diplomats, inspectors, and CIA," says Barry McCaffrey, the retired four-star general who led the left-hook attack across the Euphrates River valley during the 1991 Gulf War, trapping Iraq's elite Republican Guard.

General McCaffrey and other experts say that a war on Iraq will be prosecuted much more swiftly than the 1991 war, which at the time was one of the swiftest in modern combat.

For one thing, the US has prepositioned heavy weapons and other supplies in the region. In 1991, there was nothing in place - not a single round, armored vehicle, or meal.

Second, the US military is much more technologically advanced than it was in 1991. For example, 10 percent of the bombs dropped in the 1991 war were precision munitions. This time, 80 percent of the bombs dropped will be precision-guided munitions - that is, munitions guided either by laser beam or satellite.

Third, the Iraqi military is operating at about half the capacity it was in 1991. "The Iraqi Army in particular has terrible maintenance and logistics problems, dismal morale," McCaffrey says.

That said, he goes on to say that any fighting wouldn't be simply a walk in the park. The six divisions of the Republican Guard, which have three tank divisions around Baghdad, are well equipped. In addition, there are another 15,000 troops in the Special Republican Guard, the troops that move Saddam Hussein around and guard sensitive sites, and four intelligence services that are all heavily armed.

This last group, which is the closest to Mr. Hussein, has a very good reason to fight, McCaffrey says. If they aren't killed in battle with the US, their own people - who despise them for being part of Hussein's despotic regime - will likely turn on them.

Still, he says, "There is no doubt in my mind that we will destroy the Iraqi armed forces, take down the regime, and occupy Iraq" within 21 days.

Who's where

Over the past two months, in preparation for an eventual war, the US has been quietly moving forces and material into the region, resulting in the 80,000 troop estimate. The Pentagon doesn't release official figures, but it lists approximate numbers. In addition, several websites track military affairs.

According to those, there are approximately:

• 12,000 Army troops in Kuwait, which are protected by two Patriot missile batteries;