Iraq's Long-Term Strategy May Be War of Attrition, Observers Say

Saddam could claim victory if he erodes coalition unity in a long war

DEEP down in his bunker, is he plotting or reacting? Does he have more surprises up his tunic or is ``hunker down'' the only game plan? Two weeks into the Persian Gulf war, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein remains an enigma to allied military planners.

Defense Secretary Richard Cheney admitted as much last week when he said: ``We know less today about what's going on in Saddam's mind than we did''before the war.

Yet behind all the uncertainties, bravado, bizarre dumping of oil in the Persian Gulf, and breezy exortations of victory, Saddam Hussein seems to operate on two maxims: that the West doesn't have the stomach for blood; and that he has limited military options in facing off against a superpower-led allied coalition.

These as much as anything, Mideast and military analysts say, is the driving force behind his apparent strategy of digging in, husbanding resources, and waiting for the ground war that will pit the strength of his military - artillery and combat-tested troops - against coalition forces.

In pursuing this course, the Iraqi leader is probably looking at one of two outcomes. He undoubtedly wants to prolong the war as long as he can and inflict as much damage as possible, hoping the world will tire of the violence. He still seems convinced that the United States can't accept mass casualties, President Bush's assurances of American resolve nothwithstanding.

Under this scenario, Saddam probably believes he can win the war, if winning means surviving and expanding his standing in the Arab world, whether or not he keeps Kuwait.

``Although some things are going bad for him, it is not so clear that he is sitting in Baghdad going, `My God, I'm losing this war,''' says Andrew Goldberg, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. ``He could still think he can win.''

On the other hand, if the war turns against him, some analysts believe his only option is to fight to the last soldier.

``No leader in the Middle East retires to a condominium overlooking the Euphrates or an apartment in London,'' says Christine Helms, an expert on Iraq. ``When he goes down, he goes down. It should not be surprising that Saddam Hussein would be prepared to go down in flames.''

The Iraqi leader must be feeling both troubled and triumphant with the way events have unfolded so far, analysts say.

He has to be concerned about his lack of air power, the damage done to his military-industrial base, and the exposure of his frontline troops to increased bombing raids. At the same time, Saddam is undoubtedly frustrated at his inability (so far) to draw Israel into the war and undermine the cohesiveness of the Arab members of the coalition.

Yet for two weeks he has stood up to the vast firepower of the US, which has to resonate well with Arabs and Muslims is the region. He has also been able to preserve at least some of his air force (even if a large chunk of it may be out of reach in Iran), presumably some of his chemical weapons, and he has the whole war moving toward the ground conflict that gives him the best chance politically and militarily.

``Clearly his long-term agenda is to involve the US in a conflict for as long as he can, and bloody our noses adequately,'' says retired Gen. Edward C. Meyer, former Army chief of staff. From that viewpoint, ``it is probably going about the way he would like it to go.''

``For him, the war is just starting in a serious way,'' says Marvin Feuerwerger of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ``I think both sides have reason for satisfaction and concern.''

The question is: What will Saddam do next? Can he afford to absorb blows and wait for US-lead troops to attack? Part of that hinges on how much information he is getting about damage to his troops, military installations, and communications systems. Many analysts, though, expect him to wait the coalition out.

``What real alternatives does he have?'' asks Ronald Hatchett, a defense-studies professor at Texas A&M University. The US will down his aircraft if they fly, Mr. Hatchett says. Since Saddam does not have numerical superiority over the better-equipped coalition ground troops, offensive action is unlikely.

The Iraqi president could launch a preemptive strike to try to draw the allies into a ground war early if the bombing raids were savaging his troops. Indeed, the US announced yesterday that coalition forces had sustained casualties in an effort to drive Iraqi troops out of Khafji, an oil town 12 miles south of the Saudi-Kuwaiti border they reached in what the Pentagon described as a probing attack.

A full-scale preemptive strike, though, would likely mean sacrificing men; contrary to popular belief, the Iraqis are not cavalier about loosing troops.

``We are going to fight this war on his terms,'' says retired Navy Admiral Gene LaRocque of the Center for Defense Information. ``We are going to have to go into Kuwait and fight him on the ground.''

Analysts expect Saddam to continue lobbing Scud missiles at Israel and strategic targets in Saudi Arabia - not so much to inflict damage but to try to widen the war and to ``let the world know he is still in the game,'' as one puts it. Most believe he still has chemical weapons, which he may be holding for the ground conflict or a massive attack.

Whatever he does, however, many believe it will not be the act of an irrational man, as he is often portrayed. Instead, they say, it will likely be in pursuit of his strategy of trying to engage the coalition forces in a war of attrition - something he thinks he can better withstand and that might allow him to emerge a political winner if a standoff ensues.

``Saddam cannot hope to win a victory on the battlefield - and he knows it,'' Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University, recently wrote. ``Hence his strategy will be designed to achieve a political victory, defined as survival of himself and his regime.''

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