The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest and perhaps not to do it at all, according to senior Pentagon officials.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff have waged a determined behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade the Bush administration to reconsider an aggressive posture toward Iraq in which war was regarded as all but inevitable. This included a secret briefing at the White House earlier this month for President Bush by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as head of the Central Command would oversee any U.S. military campaign against Iraq.
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During the meeting, Franks told the president that invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein would require at least 200,000 troops, far more than some other military experts have calculated. This was in line with views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have repeatedly emphasized the lengthy buildup that would be required, concerns about Hussein's possible use of biological and chemical weapons and the possible casualties, officials said.
The Bush administration still appears dedicated to the goal of removing the Iraqi leader from power, but partly in response to the military's advice, it is focusing more on undermining him through covert intelligence operations, two officials added. "There are many ways in which that [regime change] could come about, only one of which is a military campaign in Iraq," one official familiar with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's thinking said yesterday.
Any final decision would be the president's. Appearing in Berlin yesterday, Bush offered more tough rhetoric about Iraq and other countries he has labeled part of an "axis of evil." But at a news conference in Berlin, he also said that he had told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder: "I have no war plans on my desk, which is the truth, and that we've got to use all means at our disposal to deal with Saddam Hussein." [Details, Page A26.]
In addition to skepticism from within his own military, Bush faces concern in Europe about the wisdom of expanding the war to Iraq. Schroeder embraced the effort to pressure Hussein to accept weapons inspectors but would not be drawn into discussion of a military attack.
The debate inside the Pentagon is only part of a larger discussion of Iraq that also involves the White House, the State Department and the CIA, among others. Those deliberations go well beyond discussing the merits of mounting a military operation and lately have focused on the role of international diplomacy and what use to make of unwieldy Iraqi opposition groups abroad.
The disclosure of the efforts by the uniformed leadership to slow the drive toward war suggests that a military confrontation with Iraq may be further away than has been suggested by many administration officials. Some of the chiefs' concerns were first reported in yesterday's editions of USA Today.
However, the situation is still fluid, and Pentagon insiders say intense pressure is being brought by advocates of military action within the administration to get the chiefs on their side.
In a series of meetings this spring, the six members of the Joint Chiefs -- the chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers; the vice chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace; and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps -- hammered out a position that emphasizes the difficulties of any Iraq campaign while also quietly questioning the wisdom of a military confrontation with Hussein.
"I think all the chiefs stood shoulder-to-shoulder on this," said one officer tracking the debate, which has been intense at times. In one of the most emphatic summaries of the direction of the debate, one top general said the "Iraq hysteria" he detected last winter in some senior Bush administration officials has been diffused.
But others familiar with the discussions held by the Joint Chiefs in the secure Pentagon facility known as "the Tank" say that it is premature for the uniformed military to declare victory. They note that Rumsfeld has so far mostly stayed out of the debate, leaving that to Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and Douglas J. Feith, the Pentagon's top policy official, who are seen inside the Pentagon as the Defense Department's leading hawks on Iraq.
In their Tank sessions, the chiefs focused on two specific concerns about the conduct of any offensive. One was that Hussein, if faced with losing power and likely being killed, would no longer feel the constraints that during the Persian Gulf War apparently kept him from using his stores of chemical and biological weapons. The other was the danger of becoming bogged down in bloody block-by-block urban warfare in Baghdad that could kill thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.
Franks, who attended a Tank session before seeing the president, has expressed similar concerns, said one officer. "Tommy's issue is, a lot of things have to be in place, and these things are not all military things," he recounted.