The Bush administration has settled on a plan for a possible invasion of Iraq that envisions seizing most of the country quickly and encircling Baghdad, but assumes that Saddam Hussein will probably fall from power before U.S. forces enter the capital, senior U.S. military officials said.
Hedging its bets, the Pentagon is also preparing for the possibility of prolonged fighting in and around Baghdad. Administration war planners expect that, even if the Iraqi president is deposed from power, there could be messy skirmishes there and in Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, the military officials said.
_____The Iraq Debate_____
A comprehensive guide to The Debate About Iraq with contributions from Jimmy Carter, George Shultz, Sen. Zell Miller, Charles Krauthammer, Richard Holbrooke, Michael Kelly, Gen. Wesley Clark and many others.
Military: Related articles, Web search, online resources.
The war plan, sometimes the subject of bitter arguments between senior civilian and military officials, has been refined in recent weeks even as the Bush administration pursued a successful diplomatic effort to secure a new U.N. weapons inspection system for Iraq. Officials said that the plan could still change in important ways, such as the precise number of troops required, but that the broad outlines are now agreed upon within the administration. Military officials said they will be prepared to go to war if Iraq flouts the new resolution, approved on Friday by the U.N. Security Council.
Most notably, the emerging U.S. approach tries to take into account regional sensitivities by attempting to inflict the minimum amount of damage deemed necessary to achieve the U.S. goals in a war. The plan aims to do that mainly by attacking quickly but with a relatively small force conducting focused attacks. But it also hedges by putting enough combat force in the area -- including around 150,000 U.S. and allied ground troops -- to engage in close combat with the Special Republican Guard if Iraqi resistance is stiffer than expected.
"The point is that if things don't go as we hope, there will be enough forces on hand to deal with it," said one Defense Department official who was briefed on the plan late last month.
The dual nature of the U.S. war plan is designed to encourage Iraqis to revolt against Hussein. As an administration official put it in a recent interview, the plan aims to "create the conditions" under which Iraqis can do that. "I think ultimately this is more of a revolution that's going to happen, rather than something brought about by U.S. military power," he said.
To create those conditions, the U.S. invasion would begin with a series of simultaneous air and ground actions and psychological warfare operations, all aimed at destroying the security police and other institutions that help Hussein hold on to power. "You have to shake the regime to its core," said one knowledgeable defense expert. "You've got to pursue the pillars of the regime across the board."
Under the concept of operations briefed this fall to President Bush, rather than begin with a lengthy air campaign, as in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, an invasion would begin with the U.S. military swiftly seizing the northern, western and southern sectors of Iraq while launching air strikes and other attacks on "regime targets" -- mainly security forces and suspected repositories of chemical and biological weapons -- in the remaining part of the country around Baghdad, military officials said.
Simultaneously, a nationwide "psychological operations" campaign that is already underway would use leaflets and radio broadcasts to try to persuade the Iraqi military to change sides and to tell the Iraqi population that they aren't being targeted. Also, troops and civilian officials would be warned against carrying out orders to use chemical or biological weapons.
If Hussein were to fall quickly, U.S. ground forces wouldn't need to assault Baghdad. "The feeling is, they'll be successful in the first phase, and then the next phase won't be necessary, because the regime will fall and a new regime will take over," said a military planner. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community has predicted that Hussein might even be ousted before a U.S. attack is launched, once it becomes clear in Iraq that such an attack is imminent.
Overall, the plan makes sense by trying both to undercut Hussein's domestic base and to minimize his ability to strike neighbors, said retired Air Force Col. Richard Atchison, an intelligence officer who specialized in targeting during the Gulf War. "In the north, you separate Saddam from his tribal support base; in the south, you hold the area most seditious to the Saddam regime," he said. "Then you can form an Iraqi government-in-waiting with your coalition allies."
Meanwhile, Atchison said, in the west, where there is little except a highway and two Iraqi military airfields and weapons depots, "you protect Jordan and Israel."
This article was discussed extensively in recent days with several senior civilian and military Defense Department officials. At their request, several aspects of the plan are being withheld from publication. Those aspects include the timing of certain military actions, the trigger points for other moves, some of the tactics being contemplated and the units that would execute some of the tactics.
Some of those officials said they see a strategic benefit in disclosing the dual nature of the plan. Discussing its broad outline would help inform the Arab world that the United States is making a determined effort to avoid attacking the Iraqi people, one said. At the same time, he added, it also might help the Iraqi military understand that the U.S. military will be able to destroy any units that resist.