USA gears up for Iraq conflict without regional support  

Gulf States Newsletter (GSN) Issue 682 - 20 March 2002

Washington’s intention to remove President Saddam Hussein from power is no longer in doubt, but opposition from regional allies—robustly expressed during Vice President Dick Cheney’s mid-March tour of potential coalition partners—has prompted a reassessment of the US war machine’s capabilities to effect regime change in Iraq.

With some of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s own ministers, military commanders and Members of Parliament sceptical, even President George W. Bush’s key ally, the UK is not committed to eradicating Saddam in an immediate campaign (see MiddleEast Insider Iraq supplement). The Pentagon would reportedly like Britain to supply up to 25,000 troops for an assault on Saddam.

Neither do allies in the region have any appetite for the campaign while the Palestinian territories burn. Saudi Arabia’s reservations suggest it would not base US combat forces and would at best serve as a logistical hub, as during the December 1998 Operation Desert Fox.

Bush will try to alter this perception when Crown Prince Abdallah Bin Abdelaziz finally visits. After months of tensions, Cheney’s 16 March invitation for CPA to meet Bush at his Texas ranch (an honour also bestowed on Blair and Russia’s Vladimir Putin) was almost immediately accepted.

Basing in Nato’s only Muslim member, Turkey, is also in doubt. Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit candidly stated his opposition to further instability in Iraq. Unless Ankara can be convinced that short-term instability will be followed by long-term stability in Iraq—and Kurdistan in particular—operations from Incirlik Air Base are likely to be heavily restricted or vetoed.

Among Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states, only Kuwait is a dependable basing option for the USA—and even the Kuwaitis have tempered their deep loathing for Saddam with calls for Washington to adopt a more balanced MidEast policy, taking greater account of the Palestinians.

US planners have based their assumptions on Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the U.A.E. playing a bigger role, making Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia a less vital asset (GSN 679/5). But most leaders are ambivalent—and would be reluctant to break ranks without Riyadh’s approval.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa summed up the mood, commenting that while the White House was focused on weapons of mass destruction, “in the Arab world, the way the threat is perceived is quite different... People dying today on the streets are not dying because of an Iraqi action. The people dying on the streets are dying as a result of an Israeli action.”

Roads to regime change

Cheney’s tour highlighted key assumptions bounding US military planning of an operation focused on regime change in Iraq. This must have an air and ground component—although the latter could involve a minimal number of US special and light forces if Washington was willing to once again gamble, as in Afghanistan, on a combination of local uprisings, defections and insurgents.

Geography dictates three potential axes of advance towards the Baathist homeland of Tikrit and Baghdad—Saddam’s centre of gravity.

Astride Baghdad’s southern approach is the Basra conurbation, beyond which is an intersection of parallel north-south road corridors and marshland. Baghdad’s western approach runs through Anbar province—heartland of many of Saddam’s loyalist tribes (MEI Iraq 19/1)—and consists of open terrain ideal for mobile operations, albeit with narrow choke points at the Jordanian border (150 kilometres) and the lakes guarding Baghdad’s western flank (two causeways less than 40 kilometres wide).

The northern route would involve striking through Mosul—a major source of Saddam’s military manpower—and south across relatively open terrain into Tikrit and Baghdad.

The Pentagon’s several scenarios

Three basic scenarios capture the range of options facing US planners, revolving around a fully-fledged land invasion, an offshore ‘global strike’-based campaign and a bombing-led assault to trigger a coup (which we shall call Desert Fox II).

The most ambitious form of regime rollback would involve a land invasion with strong armoured forces—a miniature version of the 1991 Desert Sabre offensive that crushed the Iraqi army in 100 hours. Leaked reports have claimed the USA has considered this option, with force commitments ranging from 50,000-100,000 troops.

The build-up for such an operation would be laborious if attempted anywhere other than Kuwait, base for a brigade set of pre-positioned equipment. Further equipment sets elsewhere in the GCC and afloat in the Gulf and at Diego Garcia could be assembled in Kuwait. Aside from the Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed to Afghanistan, two others may be available for employment in the Gulf.

Afloat, pre-positioned troops could be diverted to Jordan via Aqaba,providing a lighter force than in a Kuwaiti scenario. Deploying heavy forces from Kurdistan would present huge logistical problems. Core US light forces such as the 101st Air Assault Division and 82nd Airborne Division (minus the 10th Mountain Division employed in Afghanistan) would be required for a push from the north.

An alternative might be an intermediate-sized operation in the spirit of Operations Allied Force and Enduring Freedom. In both operations local insurgents—the Kosovo Liberation Army and the United Front—were supported by US airpower.

This was the option put forward by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which included ‘bite-and-hold’ land-grabs and the establishment of a shadow government in an opposition-held enclave in Basra, under the US protective umbrella.

This option would require the use of existing (but politically troublesome) armed movements like the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI) or the arming of Ahmed Chalabi’s INC émigrés (GSN 677/8). The opportunist Chalabi is keen on US-led action; SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Al-Hakim does not back an attack at this time.

The US military distrusts local insurgents in critical tasks—shown by the assault last year on Al-Qaeda’s Tora Bora stronghold. It is likely that US light forces would participate, with a commitment of up to 25,000 troops, to support local insurgents.

A determined ground force invasion or bite-and-hold option would require land-based airpower. Kuwait is an obvious option that could absorb the requisite amount of US aircraft; but it would present an easy target for Iraqi Scud missiles, with or without chemical warheads.

Jordan has previously supported US aerospace expeditionary unit deployments and has better prospects for force protection and dispersal. But less advanced facilities would lower sortie rates.

The alternative is to rely on the menu of assets used in Operation Enduring Freedom—carrier air power and ‘global strike’ missions launched from the continental USA, Diego Garcia or elsewhere outside the theatre of conflict. These assets were also used in Operation Desert Fox.

While they confounded critics in Afghanistan, these assets would be insufficient in Iraq’s more complicated operational environment.

Intercontinental bombers display the loiter and precision strike capabilities required to support ground forces, but would be exposed against Iraq’s air defences—without parallel in Afghanistan, and recently capable of scoring close misses on US high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance aircraft.

Carrier aviation could not maintain the sortie rates required to support a major land battle if faced by active air defences. In the absence of major land-based airpower, the only likely avenue for US action is in the Basra area.

From Desert Fox II to coup

Desert Fox II is the third option, based on a series of carefully targeted airstrikes aimed at causing a coup within Iraq. But the USA and UK failed to succeed in 1998 with what Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger called a target list “of outstanding fidelity”—the product of years of UNSCOM spying. The USA and UK are less cognisant three years after inspectors were expelled from Iraq, making it highly unlikely that sophisticated targeting would succeed in killing key leaders including Saddam, suppress regime security forces or coerce them into treachery.

US military options are highly problematic given host nation reservations, which have compounded the already mammoth task facing US planners. For deployability, air cover and host nation support, a bite-and-hold strike on Basra from Kuwait is the most feasible initial option—albeit with force protection concerns that break every rule in the US military handbook and the possibility of an anti-climactic, open-ended result.

Force insertions from Turkey or Jordan face political and military barriers but afford more room for manoeuvre. If such incursions fail to kick-start the “rolling coup” favoured by the INC, only a march on loyalist enclaves in Anbar, Mosul and Tikrit provinces, or Baghdad, could draw the regime to battle. At present, no single option or combination of options offers the Bush Administration military consolation in an increasingly hostile diplomatic climate.


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