But the entire plan is designed to avoid having to engage in debilitating urban combat in the streets of the capital, where U.S. technological advantages would be degraded and civilian casualties would be inevitable.
In phase one of the operation, the U.S. military would move into the nearly empty western desert bordering Jordan. The purpose of this action would be to keep Israel from being attacked by missiles or unmanned drone aircraft laden with chemical or biological weapons. U.S. troops would look for airstrips and stretches of highway where drones could be launched. They also would keep a watch for Scud missiles, though U.S. military intelligence analysts consider it unlikely that Iraq has operational Scuds that it could deploy to the west.
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At roughly about the same time, the 101st Airborne Division and a similar helicopter-heavy British unit would move from bases in Germany and Turkey into northern Iraq. This is expected to be a largely unopposed movement because northern Iraq is Kurdish and has been largely autonomous since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. The CIA is believed to already be operating there.
Once in northern Iraq, U.S. forces could establish operating bases through which "follow-on" U.S. units could fly in from Turkey to refuel and then launch attacks further south. In particular, this would position U.S. troops for attacks on Tikrit, a city of about 50,000 that lies on the Tigris River, about 100 miles north of Baghdad.
Putting a large U.S. force in northern Iraq would also keep the Turkish military from believing that it has a free hand in dealing with the Kurds, with whom it has been engaged in low-level fighting for years. But this aspect of the operation is mainly expected to be defensive, carried out mainly to keep the Iraqi military from trying to retreat into the north.
In the south, British forces and the U.S. Marines likely would be assigned to seize airstrips and other key facilities in the heavily Shiite section around the port city of Basra, just north of Kuwait. This aspect of the plan "gives the Shiites a chance to get organized," said a former Central Command official. The Shiites adhere to a form of Islam that is different from that of Hussein and most of the people around him, who are Sunni Muslims.
Then, if Hussein were still in power, U.S. tanks would spearhead a multipronged attack on Baghdad and Tikrit, the source of Hussein's strongest support. That part of central Iraq is considered to pose a far more difficult military problem than does the rest of the country, in part because antiaircraft weaponry has been withdrawn from other areas and concentrated there, according to U.S. military intelligence analysts
The plan resembles the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama more than it does the 1991 Gulf War, people familiar with it noted. "This is looking more and more like a Panama-style takedown, a Special Operation writ large, but with significant follow-on forces . . . to pacify any bypassed pockets, prevent too many reprisal killings of the Baathists and reduce any holdouts," said Tom Donnelly, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute who is co-author of a history of the Panama operation.
The force being considered to carry out this plan is larger than some senior Pentagon civilians and some air power advocates had advocated earlier this year. People familiar with the plan say that it currently contemplates using about 250,000 Army, Air Force, Marine, Navy and allied personnel. The numbers are drawing fire from some who had argued for a smaller approach that would rely less on conventional Army forces and more on a combination of Special Forces, air strikes and rebel Iraqis. "This is a classic Army/Tommy Franks plan, and I believe it is their game plan," said one retired Air Force general, referring to Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the head of the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters covering Iraq and the Middle East.
Some military officials said the overall troop size -- which amounts to about half the 500,000 U.S. Army troops deployed for the 1991 Gulf War -- would be a powerful signal to Iraqis that the U.S. government is determined to bring change to Iraq. "They have to be prepared to go in with a large force and must advertise that fact in order to attempt to get Saddam to quit or to get to those who might try to overthrow him," one planner said.
Whatever the reason, Franks is now seen inside the Pentagon as having prevailed in the argument over the size of the force. "I'd say he's a happy camper," said one person familiar with Franks's thinking.
That is a radical shift from earlier this year, when Franks first presented his thoughts about attacking Iraq to Rumsfeld and was ordered to reexamine his assumptions. "He was slam-dunked on his early war plans," said one person familiar with that discussion. "He was told, 'Go off, be more creative, we don't want to put huge forces on the ground, and your time lines are too long.' "
The plan that now exists is a kind of compromise, the planner said, with Franks now offering an approach that is speedier than originally envisioned but with a troop contingent close in size to what he originally proposed. "I think it is a pretty audacious and bold plan," said the Defense official who was recently briefed on it.
But even now, the plan isn't set in concrete. Most notably, there are still some concerns among military leaders about which units -- and which nations -- would shoulder the burden of post-victory occupation. "The military piece of defeating the Iraqi army is certainly within our capabilities," Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine commandant, said in a recent interview. But, he added, "there is always the aftermath, and that is one of the great unresolved questions. There are all kinds of questions here." The first one he noted is, "How long are you going to stay?"