As American forces gear up for a possible invasion of Iraq, two wild cards are deeply troubling to senior US defense and military officials: President Saddam Hussein's potential to stage a counterattack with biological or chemical weapons, as well as his ability to retain the loyalty of the Iraqi Army and civilian population.
Indeed, two central elements driving US war-planning strategy appear to be how to neutralize the risk of a chemical or biological strike on US forces or neighboring states, while also quickly paralyzing the core Iraqi leadership and encouraging widespread defections by Iraqi troops and commanders, official statements suggest.
As a result, a US campaign would likely be one of "rapid decisive operations." It would combine intense, focused airstrikes to eliminate Iraqi air defenses and other critical military targets, along with swift insertion of US and allied Special Operations Forces. Elite forces spearheading the ground operation would play a crucial role in hunting down Iraqi leaders, working with internal opposition, and finding the arsenal and delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They would be followed by a medium-sized invasion force of some 100,000 US troops, analysts and officials say.
Initial airstrikes would aim to destroy the air defenses Iraq has modernized in recent years with fiber optics. Already, US and British warplanes are launching frequent strikes to degrade higher-value, fixed Iraqi air defenses in a tactical shift ordered in recent months by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Strikes are also likely on Mr. Hussein's headquarters, including presidential palaces, and on communications nodes that could allow the Iraqi leader to rally forces, according to former military commanders.
At the same time, airstrikes likely assisted early on by US commandos on the ground would seek to thwart a possible WMD attack by targeting delivery systems such as Scud-type missiles and other short-range missiles and related infrastructure.
"The first thing you would do is try to attack whatever infrastructure associated with WMD you could," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers told a Senate committee last Thursday, adding that "weapons of mass destruction would be a horrible thing to have on the battlefield."
Attacking delivery systems is crucial, Pentagon officials and experts say, because once a chemical or biological weapon is launched likely in baseball-sized bombs either on a missile or aboard an aircraft or low-flying unmanned drone shooting it down is highly problematic. If hit, the bombs are likely to disperse their lethal contents on troops or populations below, especially if intercepted at lower altitudes with an insufficient blast, says James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments here.
Another risk is that an Iraqi WMD attack on a nearby country such as Israel would widen the conflict, a scenario the Pentagon is strenuously seeking to avoid. "It would be overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to stay out in the event that a conflict were to occur," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Still, Israeli officials have indicated they would not show the same restraint they did during the 1991 Gulf War when Iraq fired dozens of Scud missiles at Israel.
Yet the military admits that it faces a major challenge in rapidly locating Iraq's chemical and biological arsenals and its mobile delivery systems.
"They've gone underground, they've gone mobile, they combine their biological and chemical weapons production with legitimate facilities," General Myers told a House committee last week. "It's going to make this problem of discovery just very, very difficult."
Once actual WMD stockpiles are found, they must be dealt with from the ground, Rumsfeld asserts. Bombing such materials poses risks because it could unleash a plume of deadly debris. Also, some storage facilities are so heavily fortified deep underground that they could only be destroyed with weapons that, according to Rumsfeld "would not be pleasant to have to use," a possible reference to bunker-busting nuclear devices.
Another key goal, Pentagon officials suggest, would be to drive a wedge between Hussein and the Iraqi military, which has 23 ground divisions, including six Republican Guard divisions. Poor morale and low training standards are widespread in Iraqi ranks, which have been diminished by 50 to 60 percent since the Gulf War, they say. During that conflict, tens of thousands of Iraqi troops switched sides or surrendered within days to US forces, Pentagon officials say.
A major "psychological operations" campaign would urge Iraqi troops to surrender, while warning that anyone using WMD will be held accountable. "Wise Iraqis will not obey orders to use weapons of mass destruction," Rumsfeld said.
US Army Special Forces troops, trained linguists known as Green Berets, would help organize any breakaway Iraqi military units and forge links with opposition groups. Trained linguists with cultural skills, Green Berets would play a vital role in organizing anti-Saddam groups, experts say.
Just as they did in Afghanistan, US Special Operations Forces assigned to Iraqi dissident groups would work closely with agents from the Central Intelligence Agency, says Michael Vickers, a military strategist and former Special Forces and CIA officer. "There is a blurring between the CIA and the military in this regard," he said.
Officials have voiced confidence that the US has ample resources to defeat Hussein. Forces prepositioned in the region include some 50,000 troops, equipment for four brigades, two aircraft carrier battle groups, and hundreds of aircraft.