Now what in Iraq?

Posted: Oct 14, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Now that Congress has droned through a week of largely desultory debate to authorize the use of force against Iraq, how will it be exercised? That is properly a military secret, unknown even to members of Congress. More questionable, it is also unknown to senior military officers. If there is a precise plan for action to remove Saddam Hussein from power, general officers at the Pentagon tell members of Congress that they are in the dark. This may be another example of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld working with a small circle of both official and unofficial advisers, fostering concern among career officers that plans are not being sufficiently reviewed by expert military opinion. Hawkish civilians, in and out of the government, have been suggesting that Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard will throw up its arms in surrender. No serious person believes that. The question is whether an uprising of the persecuted Shia majority will be enough to overthrow the Baghdad regime without heavy application of U.S. force. If there is no effective revolt, the generals and their friends on Capitol Hill worry that the unknown plans may not call for sufficient U.S. forces. The concern goes to the executive style of Don Rumsfeld, who recalls the forceful and abrasive qualities demonstrated by war secretaries in the mold of Edwin Stanton during the Civil War. To his credit, Rumsfeld has attempted to toughen up the officer corps, softened by standards of political correctness during the eight Clinton years. However, the officers who thought that happy days were here again on the day that George W. Bush became president have been disappointed. Their disappointment stems from Rumsfeld's inclination, born of a turbulent lifetime in governmental and corporate affairs, to make decisions within a restricted circle. That includes war planning. According to Pentagon sources, the secretary does not consult the uniformed service chiefs. Participating in the immediate planning are Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the Central Command, and a few officers from the Pentagon's Joint Staff. What most bothers the generals, however, is Rumsfeld's preference for outside advice. For example, Pentagon sources say a frequent consultant with the secretary is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an amateur military expert and member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board. There is no distribution through the Pentagon of such advice. Generally, this advice probably follows the longtime line by Richard Perle, the Policy Board's chairman, that indigenous Shia forces will do most of the fighting to dislodge Saddam. That leads to the internal debate over whether 250,000 U.S. troops are needed for combat in Iraq or, instead, a much smaller number will do. The professional military believes that Saddam's Republican Guard will fight, and that substantial U.S. forces will be needed. Contrary to a widespread popular impression, these elite troops did not surrender at the first sign of American troops in 1991. Saddam, displaying his instinct for survival, had brought his Guard back to Baghdad and placed untrained Shia recruits on the front line in the desert. One Republican Guard unit, the Hammurabi tank division, was trying to get to Baghdad when it was mowed down by Maj. Gen. Barry McCaffrey's U.S. 24th Division at the Rumaila oil field in the Gulf War's famous "turkey shoot." Saddam decided not to risk his elite units in a hopeless military situation when he figured, correctly, that his regime could survive. His options figure to be different this time. Officers at the Pentagon cut off from the secretary of defense worry about the Republican Guard conducting a last-ditch defense of Baghdad, using Iraqi civilians as shields. They ask: What are U.S. plans for conducting this kind of warfare, which would inflict a high casualty rate on both sides? I asked a senior, well-informed Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is a strong supporter of President Bush, whether the U.S. military was preparing for war with Iraq with sufficient force to cover all possibilities. "They better have," he replied. When I rephrased the question, he gave exactly the same answer. He does not know, and neither do some gentlemen with four stars on their shoulders.