Iraq prepares for its defense

Thousands of troops shift south; foxholes dug in gardens.

As a critical UN deadline for the destruction of its Al Samoud 2 missiles nears, Iraq is giving the first indications that it is bracing for war.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered regional governors late Tuesday to tell citizens to start digging foxholes in their gardens.

The Iraqi military is also redeploying large numbers of troops for the first time in this crisis. The Pentagon says it has intelligence indicating that an Iraqi Republican Guard infantry division (up to 10,000 soldiers) is moving from northern Iraq toward Tikrit - Mr. Hussein's home region - and possibly further south toward Baghdad. "There is a significant [troop] movement from the north to the south," a Pentagon official in Washington says. Hussein "may be putting more emphasis on areas like Tikrit, where he has a lot of supporters," he says.

Until now, with UN weapons inspectors criss-crossing Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq has deliberately avoided troop movements that might be perceived as secret shifting of proscribed materials, according to Western diplomats here. Even scheduled military training exercises were canceled.

But the Pentagon official stresses that areas such as Tikrit have "no military value" to the US, and they could simply be bypassed, he says. The upshot, says the official: a reduced Iraqi capability in the north, possibly backfilled with regular Army units.

The new moves underscore how the Iraq crisis may be nearing a diplomatic and military climax.

"They have to dig trenches in their gardens" in case of war, the Iraqi News Agency quoted Mr. Hussein as saying. "Tell every citizen to go with his family to the trenches during raids, so that even if a shell falls on their house, God forbid, a deep trench will protect them."

The war preparations came as Iraq neared a Saturday deadline to begin destroying its arsenal of dozens of Al Samoud 2 missiles, as well as the production lines and engines. The missiles have a range longer than the UN-permitted limit of 93 miles, and the diameters of some have been modified beyond UN limits laid down in 1994 - possibly to contain a second engine that could at least double the range.

Dimitri Perricos, chief of operations for UN weapons inspectors, arrived in Baghdad last night to oversee the destruction of the Al Samoud facilities. Inspection teams Thursday resumed their work of destroying recently discovered mustard shells and conducting other inspections in search of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

Iraq's decision on the missiles could prove to be a casus belli for US and British officials, who have placed before the UN Security Council a resolution describing Iraq as being in material breach of disarmament requirements.

But Hussein, in an interview with CBS News earlier this week, stated flatly that Iraq had no proscribed missiles that required destruction. On Wednesday, chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix gave ammunition to those calling for immediate war by stating that Iraq had not yet made "a fundamental decision" to disarm.

While many analysts - and European leaders bent on avoiding war - say that the only way to prevent conflict is for Iraq to fully comply, others suggest that Iraq has military reasons not to.

Iraq "would be crazy not to destroy the missiles," though it may not, says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Britain's University of Warwick. "The Iraqis are certain they are going to get invaded, so why should they make themselves more vulnerable?"

Any refusal to destroy the missiles would be "wonderful from the American point of view, to have that trigger," says Mr. Dodge.

Military analysts say that Iraq's Al Samoud arsenal is not strategically important to Iraq's defense, and therefore it could be given up to help ensure a passing grade from UN inspectors when Blix next reports to the Security Council on March 7.

UN inspectors convened a panel of missile experts earlier this month, who determined unanimously - after completing four separate computer simulations on data provided by Iraq in a December declaration - that all variants of the Al Samoud "inherently" went beyond UN range limits. Military analysts say that, armed with a conventional warhead, the Al Samoud presents little more danger to US troops than "100 bombs," unless one hit a command-and-control facility.

If Iraq could fit the missile with a chemical warhead, it would require a larger arsenal to be of value on the battlefield. A 30-minute loading time for each missile is also a problem, since US gunners would be able to target the source of a launch.

"The production [of the Al Samoud] is still going on," UN inspector spokesman Hiro Ueki said on Tuesday. But he made clear that Iraq had taken "positive" steps, and provided inspectors with names of scientists and engineers - 83 from the chemical weapons file, and 38 from the biological weapons side last week - who Iraq said would confirm the unilateral destruction of prohibited material in the early 1990s.

Iraq is "committed to seriously work toward disarming," said Aziz Pahad, South Africa's deputy foreign minister. That view is echoed by Iraqi analysts.

"These missiles are not weapons of mass destruction [WMD], and Iraq is allowed to produce missiles," says Mohamad Muthaffar Adhami, a member of the Iraqi parliament and dean of political science at Baghdad University. The distance the missile flies beyond the UN range - some 20 miles, for the furthest flight - is meaningless because it doesn't have a guidance system, he says. "Iraq accepted [Security Council] Resolution 1441 to avoid war, to prove it had no WMD, and to lift sanctions," Mr. Adhami says. "Iraq will study this and deal with it."

Ann Scott Tyson in contributed to this report from Washington.

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