The Soviet Union, which funded and trained the Iraqi military for two decades, is starting to share with the United States what it learned during those years. The clandestine cooperation may even lead to deployment of Soviet troops to the Persian Gulf in November if the stalemate continues that long with no armed conflict.
So far, the intelligence shared by the Soviets has not been as good as that gleaned from Iraqi defectors, including a brigadier general who brought with him war plans and order-of-battle information. But our sources say that the Defense Intelligence Agency is excited about the first tidbits of information from the Soviets. They see it as a vein leading to a mother lode.
The Soviets have yet to give what the DIA and the Central Intelligence Agency want most -- profiles of the top Iraqi military officials, how their minds work and whether they would support a coup against Saddam Hussein. At this point in the stalemate, U.S. officials think Saddam's ouster by more levelheaded Iraqis is the best way out of the crisis.
The Soviets also are holding back crucial information about which Iraqi divisions are the most battle-tested after their long war with Iran. Some intelligence reports suggest that only a dozen of Saddam's armored and infantry units have significant battle experience, and the rest are virtually green. DIA sources are confident the Soviets will share some of the details before armed conflict begins.
In the meantime, the Soviets are talking about the weapons they gave to Iraq and the ability of the Iraqis to use them. U.S. intelligence agencies have been able to pinpoint weaknesses in the Iraqi machine, particularly in the air force, which was never fully tested against Iran.
In sharing the data, the Soviets have had to weigh the morale of Soviet military advisers still in Iraq. Those advisers have come close to mutiny as Mikhail Gorbachev has quietly asked them to come home. The contingent in Iraq includes the most militant hard-liners in the Soviet army. They have secretly opposed Gorbachev's stand against Iraq and are angry at being forced to abandon one of their most loyal allies in its time of need.
Behind the scenes, the debate is being carried out between Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze think they need stronger ties with the West to rebuild the Soviet economy. They have already been rewarded for their support in the conflict with Iraq.
Soviet armed forces chief of staff Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, on a recent U.S. tour, publicly opposed U.S. military action in the Gulf unless it was sanctioned by the United Nations. But behind the scenes, U.S. officials are being told that the Kremlin would not oppose military action even if the United Nations didn't authorize it.
The latest tantalizing hints, according to our sources, suggest that the Soviets might even send their own troops in November. Why? Because the Kremlin fears U.S. and other foreign forces will become a semi-permanent fixture in the gulf, and the Soviets want to get on board before it's too late.