WITH their new "no fly" zone in southern Iraq, the United States and its allies are challenging a Saddam Hussein who, for all his bluster, has far less military strength today than he did before the Gulf war.
The Iraqi leader still has enough troops and equipment to oppress his own people, as the continuing campaign against the marshland Shiites makes clear. But the Pentagon considers Iraqi forces a broken instrument no longer capable of an offensive threat against neighboring nations. Saddam is "a long way from that," despite rebuilding efforts in recent months, says one defense official.
At most, Iraq's military capability is about 40 percent of what it once was, judge Pentagon and outside sources. And that's a sheerly numerical calculation of men and weapons. It does not take into account destruction of morale and unit cohesion as a result of Desert Storm. Among the measures of Iraqi strength, according to these sources:
* Military personnel totals an estimated 400,000, down from 1 million before the war. Where once Iraq fielded 54 army divisions, now it has 28.
* Iraq has about 2,500 tanks, down from 5,500. Heavy artillery pieces were also approximately halved by allied forces, down to today's 1,500.
* Iraq's Air Force has about 350 flyable combat planes available. Some 100 more are in Iran, to which they flew during Desert Storm; another 250 were destroyed by allied airpower.
Despite tough words, Saddam Hussein appeared, as of this writing, to be redeploying his forces in an effort to avoid a quick confrontation over the exclusion zone.
The zone, which covers all of Iraq south of 32 degrees north latitude, was officially declared by the US, Russia, France, and Britain, on Wednesday. It took effect yesterday morning, US time.
Pentagon officials said on Wednesday that it appeared all the 30 or so fixed-wing aircraft usually based below the no-fly line had already been withdrawn and flown north. Some, though not all, of the 40 Iraqi helicopters usually in the area have also been moved. In recent months, up to 10 ground-force divisions have been based in the south to fight the Shiites or counter Iran, and these troops apparently remain in the no-fly area. They include both mechanized and armored forces and according to the Penta gon are capable of large-scale operations on short notice. Attacks broaden
To this point, typical Iraqi operations in the marsh area involve cordoning off a sector with artillery and heavy forces, then building a causeway through it to march in and take control of the area. Attacks against Shia insurgent forces have now broadened to include destruction of civilian villages, according to the Pentagon.
"It's kind of a checkerboard approach, if you will, as they work their way through the marshes," said Rear Adm. Michael Cramer, director of intelligence support for the Joint Staff, in a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. Though they remain in place, without helicopters for spotting and fixed-wing aircraft for strafing attacks the power of these Iraqi ground forces will be "significantly reduced," said Admiral Cramer.
Many of the rest of Saddam's remaining divisions - 20 or so - are deployed in the north, near the Kurdish security zone. These are thought to be garrison troops particularly low in equipment and morale. Seven or eight divisions remain in the Baghdad area to provide Iraqi leaders security. About half of these are "Presidential Guard" units, a new name for crack troops with the best weapons remaining in the Iraqi arsenal. Sanctions limit access
With UN sanctions cutting into his access to the international arms market, Saddam Hussein has been unable to replace even a fraction of weapons lost in the Gulf war, say US officials. But he has reconstituted some of the defensive networks shattered by the allies. Allied forces have detected radar emissions consistent with a rebuilding of air defenses, particularly around Baghdad.
Saddam's most potent remaining threat to his neighbors may well be Scud missiles. Most Western analysts believe Iraq has managed to hide away a number of Scuds from UN weapons inspectors. Estimated numbers range from a few dozen to 200. If launched, these missiles would be capable of igniting terror in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or even Israel. And with a straight military confrontation over the no-fly zone likely to result in Iraqi defeat, such a terror action might seem an attractive alternative.
One UN source downplays the significance of Scuds, however, saying the Iraqis lack essential propellent oxidizer and the UN presence precludes launch practice.