U.S. Special Operations troops are already operating in various parts of Iraq, hunting for weapons sites, establishing a communications network and seeking potential defectors from Iraqi military units in what amounts to the initial ground phase of a war, U.S. defense officials and experts familiar with Pentagon planning said.
The troops, comprising two Special Operations Task Forces with an undetermined number of personnel, have been in and out of Iraq for well over a month, said two military officials with direct knowledge of their activities. They are laying the groundwork for conventional U.S. forces that could quickly seize large portions of Iraq if President Bush gives a formal order to go to war, the officials said.
The ground operation points to a Pentagon war plan that is shaping up to be dramatically different than the one carried out by the United States and its allies in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Instead of beginning with a massive aerial bombardment, the plan envisions a series of preliminary ground actions to seize Iraqi territory and effectively encircle Baghdad before a large-scale air campaign hits the capital, defense officials and analysts said.
"It's possible that ground movements could come in and occupy large portions of Iraq almost unimpeded," said one person familiar with Pentagon planning. In northern Iraq, the source said, "we might get to the outskirts of Tikrit without firing a shot." Tikrit, a city north of Baghdad, is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ancestral home and a major base of his power.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, is scheduled to go to the White House today for a review of his war plans with Bush. Franks is expected to depart soon afterward to Qatar, where his Central Command has established its regional headquarters for an attack on Iraq.
The buildup of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region continues, even as the Bush administration pursues last-minute diplomacy to win support for war at the United Nations. The Pentagon announced the activation of nearly 40,000 more reservists yesterday, bringing the total to more than 150,000, the highest number since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There are more than 135,000 U.S. troops in the vicinity of Iraq, and that is expected to grow by next week to 150,000 -- the number cited by military planners as the minimum required to launch a full-scale assault.
Military officials familiar with the war plan say it is possible that a fairly substantial ground operation could take place not after the air campaign, as in the Gulf War, but either before or simultaneously with it.
The Special Operations forces operating in Iraq have several distinct missions. Some are establishing relations with opposition groups and setting up airstrips into which U.S. forces could be flown, the officials said. Others are focused on preventing Iraq from launching missiles or drone aircraft against Israel. Those troops are believed to move in and out of Iraq from neighboring countries.
In addition to the ground operations, a small-scale air war against Iraq also continues. U.S. and British aircraft patrolling "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq have conducted airstrikes several times a week for months, hitting antiaircraft sites, military communications lines and other government facilities. On Tuesday, U.S. warplanes dropped more than a dozen bombs on a medium-range missile launcher system in southern Iraq. Yesterday, they returned to bomb the radar system for that launcher.
A psychological operations campaign also has been underway, with leaflets and broadcasts preparing Iraqis for military action, telling them, among other things, that "coalition forces do not wish to harm the noble people of Iraq."
"The strategic war has already begun," said retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, an expert in war planning.
Early moves of U.S. forces into northern, southern and western Iraq could substantially reduce the obstacles faced by the large-scale ground operations that would follow, military planners said. In the north, Kurdish militias already have achieved considerable autonomy while the south is overwhelmingly populated by members of the Shiite sect of Islam who widely resent Hussein's Sunni-dominated leadership. Western Iraq is largely uninhabited desert.
As a result, military planners said, U.S. ground forces could seize as much as 75 percent of Iraqi territory in the early phase of a war, leaving Hussein in control of Baghdad and the area from the capital north to Tikrit, bounded on the west by the Euphrates River and on the east by the Tigris -- a region less than 50 miles wide and about 150 miles long.
Assaulting that area still presents a formidable challenge, especially in Baghdad and other cities. But by radically reducing the combat zone, the war plan promises to substantially lessen the impact on the Iraqi population. That in turn would ease humanitarian problems.
For many of the same reasons, people familiar with the Pentagon's war plan said, the military also will move quickly to secure major oil fields either before the formal outset of war, or as it begins.
Pentagon officials said the plan under contemplation would not resemble the Gulf War, where the opening signal was cruise missiles and bombs hitting downtown Baghdad. Rather, they said, widespread aerial attacks on the capital may be among the last major moves by the United States.
In 1991, it was essential to hit targets in and around Baghdad to cut communications of the national antiaircraft network. But in contrast to 12 years ago, the antiaircraft system in northern and southern Iraq has been substantially degraded by years of airstrikes. While Baghdad remains protected by surface-to-air missiles, many of them withdrawn into the capital region from the "no-fly" zones, much of the rest of the country is relatively open to U.S. aircraft.
Military experts cited tactical and strategic reasons for beginning the war in a way that almost inverts the opening of the Gulf War.
"If Saddam Hussein has the oil fields wired for destruction and is prepared to blow the dams and dikes of the lower Tigris and Euphrates, which would slow down our forces, you can't go through a week of bombing that gives him the chance to do that," said Andrew Krepinevich, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. Also, the Bush administration worries that global patience with a war would begin running out after a few weeks of fighting. Arab governments have sent the message to the U.S. government that "if you do it, it's got to be done quickly," said Michael Eisenstadt, an expert on the Iraqi military at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. So it is advantageous, he said, for the military to win some strategic breathing space by achieving some of its war aims before the major air campaign begins.