A Dec. 18 front-page article on military concerns about the U.S. plan for a possible attack on Iraq contained several references to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, attributing to him the view that Saddam Hussein's government would fall quickly if attacked. The article should have said that some senior officers attribute that view to Wolfowitz and other senior Pentagon civilians, even though Wolfowitz, as quoted in the article, denies holding that view. (Published 12/20/02)

With war possible soon in Iraq, the chiefs of the two U.S. ground forces are challenging the belief of some senior Pentagon civilians that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will fall almost immediately upon being attacked and are calling for more attention to planning for worst-case scenarios, Defense Department officials said.

The U.S. war plan for a possible attack on Iraq, which has been almost a year in the making, calls for a fast-moving ground attack without an overwhelming number of reinforcements on hand. Instead, some follow-on troops would be flown into Iraq from outside the region. Among other things, this "rolling start" would seek to achieve tactical surprise by launching an attack before the U.S. military appears ready to do so.

In addition, the plan calls for some armored units, instead of traveling a predetermined distance and pausing to allow slow-moving supply trucks to catch up, to charge across Iraq until they run into armed opposition and then engage in combat, officials said.

Those aspects of the plan, which appear riskier than usual U.S. military practice, worry the chief of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, and the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones, defense officials said.

Shinseki and Jones, who as service chiefs are members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have questioned the contention of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and other top officials that Hussein's government is likely to collapse almost as soon as a U.S. attack is launched, the officials said.

The two generals are concerned that the Wolfowitz school may underestimate the risks involved, the officials said. They have argued that planning should prepare thoroughly for worst-case scenarios, most notably one that planners have labeled "Fortress Baghdad," in which Hussein withdraws his most loyal forces into the Iraqi capital and challenges the United States to enter into protracted street fighting, perhaps involving chemical or biological weapons.

In an interview last night, Wolfowitz rejected the view that he has been overoptimistic in his views. He said he also believes that, "You've got to be prepared for the worst case." He added: "It would be a terrible mistake for anyone to think they can predict with confidence what the course of a war is going to be." In discussions of the war plan, he said, he has repeatedly emphasized the risk of Hussein "using his most terrible weapons."

The dispute, which is taking place mainly in secret reviews of the war plan, promises to be the last major issue in the Pentagon's consideration of that plan, as more signs point toward forces being ready to launch a wide-ranging, highly synchronized ground and air attack in six to eight weeks. Psychological operations, such as leafleting and broadcasting into Iraq, have been stepped up lately, and there is talk at the Pentagon of large-scale troop movements or mobilizations being announced soon after the holidays.

The debate became more open last week when Jones alluded to it in comments made at a dinner held in his honor by former defense secretary William S. Cohen. Jones is scheduled next month to leave the Marine post to become the commander of U.S. military forces in Europe. At that dinner, Jones indicated that he and other senior officers did not share the "optimism" of others about the ease of fighting in Iraq.

In an interview, Jones said that he did not name who he thought was being overly optimistic. "I did not say, 'folks at the Pentagon,' " he said. "I said I didn't align myself with folks around town who seem to think that this is preordained to be a very easy military operation."

If a victory were swiftly won, he continued: "It is to be celebrated. But military planners should always plan for the worst case." He insisted that in his remarks he had not expressed a conclusion about how quickly Hussein might fall.

He said he believed that he and Shinseki, the Army chief, "are of the same view on this."

If anything, the Army's leadership is even more worried than Jones, said a senior officer who sides with the Wolfowitz view. "The Army really is conservative on this," he said dismissively.

The Army also has qualms about the likely burden of postwar peacekeeping in Iraq -- a mission that is likely to be executed mainly by the Army. "They're concerned they're going to be left holding the bag after everyone else has gone home," said Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who is now director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a small but influential defense think tank.

The chief of the Air Force, Gen. John P. Jumper, is said to side with the Wolfowitz view, believing that the opening round of bombing, combined with an intense propaganda campaign and Special Operations attacks, is likely to topple the government quickly. The fourth service chief, the Navy's Adm. VernClark, sides with Jumper, but not as emphatically, officials said.

The influence of the Joint Chiefs on military policy appears to have diminished under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, so it is not clear what effect the recent round of questioning will have on the war plan.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Rumsfeld confidant, predicted that it would have little. "If the chiefs wanted to be extremely cautious, extremely conservative and design a risk-avoiding strategy, that would be nothing new," he said in an interview.

Gingrich, who also is a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, said he was confident that Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Mideast, would not be swayed by suggestions that he include more reinforcements and plan a more cautious attack. Franks, he said, "will probably have a more integrated, more aggressive and more risk-taking plan."

Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, left, and Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones doubt Iraq's Saddam Hussein would topple shortly after the start of a U.S. attack.