How US might counter 'scorched-earth' tactics

The worry is that a desperate Hussein may set oil fields aflame and gas his own citizens as last stand.

As the drums of war in Iraq beat louder, US officials are preparing for the worst-case scenario: Saddam Hussein escalates to "scorched-earth" tactics, possibly in conjunction with terrorist attacks in Europe and the US by such like-minded although unofficial allies as global terror ring Al Qaeda.

Rear Admiral Stephen Baker (US Navy, ret.), now of the Center for Defense Information in Washington, sketches this possible scenario: "Cornered and realizing an inevitable defeat, death, or trial as a war criminal, Saddam torches his own oil fields, the world's second largest, in order to keep them out of the hands of American occupiers. He targets Saudi oil fields with biological agents requiring years of painstaking sanitization efforts. He blows the dams along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, flooding the southern Iraqi desert with billions of gallons of water. He launches most of his Scuds into Israel to evoke a horrendous response from that country. The Shiite population in southern Iraq is targeted with biological weapons creating a tremendous humanitarian disaster for coalition forces to deal with."

The idea here, experts say, would be to cast the conflict as a regional war pitting the US and Israel against Arab states, securing Hussein's place in history as a defender of Islam even, or perhaps especially, if he is killed with a strong resistance.

"Saddam Hussein may be profiled as a calculating, stubborn man," says Admiral Baker. "But he is also an irrational high-risk taker."

This was the essential message of a recent Pentagon background briefing by military and intelligence officials, who warned that power plants and food-storage sites in Iraq could also be targeted by Hussein.

US measures to avoid the worst case

Given the uncertainties of how the war might begin or end, as well as the understanding that such public warnings are part of the psychological mind-games both sides play, not everyone predicts such an outcome.

"The betting at the Pentagon is that the Iraqis will collapse so fast that they will not have time to wreck their own country," says retired Army Col. Daniel Smith, senior fellow with the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington.

To that end, and in hopes of averting any scorched-earth tactics, the Pentagon is steadily increasing US forces in the region. The number of American troops is expected to double to about 100,000 in coming weeks.

Tens of thousands of additional National Guard members and military reservists are preparing to join the 55,530 already on active duty. The two aircraft carriers poised to launch airstrikes could be joined by as many as four more.

It also is understood that CIA and Special Forces teams most likely are already inside Iraq providing vital targeting and other intelligence as a precursor to the US (and whatever international coalition forms) invasion.

This was the pattern in Afghanistan. In the days before the Taliban fell, such secret US troops worked closely with armed and organized locals opposed to the regime in power. In the Iraqi case, Kurds and Shiites would be recruited for alliances with the US and its allies.

"Saddam's security and military forces, by some reports, have not exercised total control in some areas," says Larry Seaquist, a retired warship captain and Pentagon strategist. "Especially in the main cities of the Shiite south there have been reports that, just like in Algeria and Vietnam, government forces do not control the countryside at night."

Even though the Iraqi military is considerably weaker than it was when it invaded Kuwait, it still could inflict considerable damage in the region. That is, if it holds together in the face of overwhelming military odds, and especially if Hussein feels personally threatened.

For that reason, and to prevent Hussein from doing considerable damage within Iraq, some observers say the US should be putting more effort into eliminating him at the start of the campaign.

"One of the problems with the way we wage war is that we tend to attack our adversaries indirectly," says Loren Thompson, head of security studies at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Even if we are going after their military and civilian assets, it is quite rare for us to target the leadership of a foreign country, and that is what is required here."

To put it bluntly, says Dr. Thompson, "The obvious answer here is to find Saddam the man and kill him."

If such a strategy were successful, it could save lives - Iraqi lives as well as American lives - by ending the war more quickly, Thompson says. But it could also prompt retaliatory assassination attempts, he acknowledges, remembering earlier plans by Hussein to kill former President George Bush.

Knowing he was personally targeted could also lead Hussein to launch the kind of scorched-earth strategy American officials are working to avoid.

Or perhaps not, because given the inevitable "fog or war" no one knows for sure whether Hussein would go so far in his tactics.

"Would Saddam pull a Götterdämmerung?" wonders Mr. Seaquist.

"Who knows? That goes so deep into his psychology at a point of stress he himself has never experienced that I doubt we can judge. Even Hitler fizzled at this point and even Hitler's orders to destroy Paris were ignored."

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