Saddam Seeking Face-Saving Way Out of Debacle

Iraqi leader's announcement of withdrawal rejected by coalition; ignores their conditions

SADDAM HUSSEIN said it would be the ``mother of all battles.'' Instead, for him the allied ground invasion of Kuwait may be the mother of all debacles. To say the fighting is going poorly is an understatement. US and coalition units are sweeping through Kuwait and Iraq as if they were on an exercise. Politics isn't going well, either. As of this writing, Iraqi attempts to unilaterally accept a Soviet peace plan and withdraw are being coldly rejected by the allies.

Saddam said Tuesday that he had ordered withdrawal of his forces from Kuwait. ``Today we will complete the withdrawal of our forces, God willing,'' he said in an address on Baghdad radio.

Iraqi Republican Guards might yet put up stiff resistance. But even these crack troops must realize their unenviable position. On one side of them are allied gun barrels moving forward at 50 m.p.h. On the other is a leader who appears to now want nothing more than to turn the clock back to the day before he invaded Kuwait.

Allied troops appear well on their way to completely encircling Iraqi forces in the Kuwaiti theater of operations. Once this trap clangs shut, it is unlikely the United States-led coalition would agree to any terms allowing Iraq to withdraw with substantial amounts of military equipment.

Destruction of much of the Iraqi army wasn't explicitly mentioned in any United Nations resolution on the Gulf crisis, but it appears to have become one of the coalition's war aims. ``War has its own momentum,'' notes former National Security Council official Ray Tanter.

As of early Tuesday morning, US and allied units were tightening their grip around the key objective of Kuwait City. Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were reportedly holding positions near the city's airport, while US Marines of the 2nd Division were reported in the city suburbs.

Meanwhile, the US VII Corps, in conjunction with French and other allied units, continued its wide sweeping movement, around Kuwait. Forward-most US troops were almost 100 miles inside Iraq.

US casualties caused by a Scud missile hit on Dhahran appeared to only harden the White House position on a negotiated Gulf settlement. US officials said they would ignore Iraq's statement that it was retreating unless Saddam Hussein publicly states he will bow to all 12 UN resolutions regarding his occupation of Kuwait.

The Soviet Union conveyed to the UN the Iraqi intent to carry out a rapid, unconditional withdrawal of its forces from Kuwait. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Belogonov said the Soviet Union supported an immediate cease-fire in response to the Iraqi statement.

``The war continues,'' presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

Bombing affects morale

Pentagon officials have long said privately that they felt the continued bombing by allied warplanes would so shake the morale of front-line Iraqi units that many of them wouldn't fight, and they were right to a degree that surprised even them.

Destruction by air of close to half of Iraq's heavy weapons in the Kuwait theater of operations greatly reduced the effectiveness of the Iraqi defense. Perhaps more important, US and allied airpower apparently succeeded in crippling the structure of the Iraqi army by reducing supply and greatly restricting the ability of division commanders to communicate with both higher headquarters and subordinate officers.

Allied electronic jamming began in the first hours of the ground war. After that, most alternate means of communication were interdicted as well, according to the Pentagon. When allied units blew through defensive lines into Kuwait, Iraqi commanders reacted as if they had only a sketchy knowledge of what was happeningwhere.

Coordination difficult

``It's been very difficult for them to coordinate,'' says a Pentagon official. ``And armies are like packs. They fight best in cohesive groups.''

By remaining fixed in place in fortifications for months, the Iraqis surrendered the military initiative to the allies. Allied commanders had months to refine their battle plans, carefully sifting intelligence about Iraqi positions and picking the weakest points for their lines of attack.

The very disposition of Iraqi forces revealed ignorance about the nature of the foe they were facing. Placing lesser-quality troops in the front lines and keeping crack heavy divisions in the rear, ready to rush up and plug holes through counterattack, was an effective strategy for Iraq when fighting lightly armed Iranian infantry. Doing it against an adversary that can pound any counterattack from the air, and can move faster than you in any case, is far less effective.

``They obviously didn't understand anything about a truly mechanized opponent,'' says a private-sector conventional weapons analyst who works on Pentagon studies.

For the allies, perhaps the most crucial military question now is where to stop. It is possible that a large crescent of southern Iraq stretching from the Saudi border to the Shatt al Arab and the northern Gulf will soon be under coalition sway. Will Basra, Iraq's gateway city on the Gulf, be placed under allied military rule? How far will allied forces go toward Baghdad itself?

Though US-led troops probably won't approach Baghdad in an effort to depose Saddam himself, possession of a piece of Iraqi territory would give the coalition powerful leverage over the future of Saddam's regime.

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