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Audacious Mission, Awesome Risks

Special Operators have already been conducting missions inside Iraq, where they have established ties with Iraqi opposition groups and gathered intelligence on the Iraqi military. During a war they also are expected to help detect and target enemy formations, and prevent the use of chemical and biological weapons by watching over suspected sites. They also will be assigned to capture or kill specific Iraqi political and military leaders, say people familiar with the planning.

In the course of all that, "We'll lose a few [Special Operations troops]," said one expert. But that, he said, is the "price of doing business."

A soldier from the 3rd Infantry Brigade inspects a truck as a convoy prepares to roll out of Camp Udairi to move closer to the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait. Planners worry about the complex logistics of moving thousands of vehicles from Kuwait to Baghdad. (Romeo Gacad -- AFP)

_____News from Kuwait_____
Carlyle Disavows Plan to Get Kuwait Business (The Washington Post, Oct 14, 2004)
Highlights of Hussein's Responses at Yesterday's Hearing (The Washington Post, Jul 2, 2004)
Survey Abroad Disappoints Census Bureau (The Washington Post, Jun 7, 2004)
Faces of the Fallen: Operation Enduring Freedom (The Washington Post, Jun 2, 2004)
Faces of the Fallen: Operation Enduring Freedom (The Washington Post, Jun 2, 2004)

But another expert familiar with the war plan added that the intense use of Special Operations will reduce the dangers to U.S. forces. Their operations "can greatly reduce the risks of the operation overall," he said.

A major mission of Special Operations will be leading the hunt for chemical and biological weapons. A major unknown is how Hussein will act if U.S. forces are closing in on him. In order to capture those weapons as quickly as possible, some U.S. troops may move into cities earlier than commanders might prefer, said one defense expert who has been briefed on the plan.

The Endgame

The biggest conundrum, most military planners in Kuwait agree, is the endgame, and whether it will involve a protracted fight through the streets of Baghdad. "The closer you get to Baghdad and the Special Republican Guard, the tougher the question of will," one officer said, referring to Hussein's most loyal troops, a few thousand elite soldiers believed to be in the capital. "That's the million-dollar question: whether they'll have the will."

Another senior officer added, "We have no intention of going door-to-door and house-to-house in a city of 5 million. It's unbelievably complex, with underground tunnels and bunkers everywhere. . . . If things go bad in a MOUT [military operations in urban terrain] environment, they go bad quickly."

Troops here have planned extensively for urban fighting even as they hope to avoid it. Some of the $30 million in supplementary special equipment purchased since December by the 101st, for example, has urban implications, if not the hint of a medieval siege: 162 battering rams, 486 grappling hooks, 81 folding assault ladders and 81 battle axes.

Other purchases, according to Lt. Col. Tony Skinner, the division's rear commander, include 27 .50-caliber sniper rifles, 410 Kevlar helmets with built-in radio headsets, and nearly 16,000 reusable plastic flex cuffs; plus, fiber optic viewers for looking around corners, 9,500 backpack "hydration systems," 42,000 new weapons magazines, and 20,000 new combat belts.

Some in the military calculate that Hussein and his government are likely to fall long before U.S. tanks roll into the capital. But others say it is a possibility, albeit remote, that urban warfare drags on. Keep in mind, warned one Senate staff member who is an expert in security issues, that the U.S. military could wind up in Iraq "for a long time, maybe fighting a low-level insurgency."

Increasing the chances of that outcome is that senior Iraqi leaders have little incentive to surrender. "They know they'll be facing tribunals," noted retired Marine Lt. Col. Thomas C. Linn, who served in northern Iraq in 1991.

But perhaps the riskiest aspect of the current plan is the character and aims of the war itself, said retired Air Force Col. John Warden, an architect of the air campaign in the Gulf War.

"The plan is probably one of the most risky in our history as it launches us off into terra incognita for the U.S.: our first preemptive or preventive war; our first attempt to democratize an Islamic state; and establishment of a very narrow beachhead in the midst of a billion undefeated Muslims," he said.

Ricks reported from Washington.

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