Military planners ponder the unknowns in Iraq

What could go wrong in a war with Iraq? Lots of things, despite the overwhelming military advantage held by the United States.

In Washington and around the world, the debate rages over what the United States should do about Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. It's a safe bet that in the bunkers of Baghdad, Saddam is brainstorming about what he can do to us.

True, the might of the U.S. military is overwhelming. But Iraq is not a rock. It will not sit there passively while the U.S. chisels it into a more appealing shape. Analysts can count the troops and tanks, gauge the accuracy of smart bombs, map the bases, and estimate how fast an army can advance over the Mesopotamian terrain. But some critical questions cannot be answered ahead of time: Would Iraq unleash poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction against American invaders? How effective would those weapons be? How hard would it be for U.S. forces to seize Iraqi cities? And above all, which of Saddam's several security forces would actually stand and fight?

U.S. military planners face these and other key questions as they ponder the risks of war with Baghdad. They know that as bad as Saddam's playing hand appears, he still holds a hole card or two. He certainly made some clever moves during the last Gulf War. He used foreigners and diplomats as human shields to protect key military installations in the run-up to Desert Storm. He let rip a slew of underwater mines that blew up two U.S. Navy ships, he engineered a massive oil spill in the gulf, and he torched most of Kuwait's oil wells as he retreated north. So, amid much anguished talk about America's options, especially considering President Bush's new doctrine of pre-emption, it's important to remember that Iraq has options of its own. And the first option, experts say, is to strike America first.

The Gambler

Could Iraq pre-empt the pre-emptors? It may sound improbable. But "probably won't happen" rings hollow when lives are on the line-as the Kuwaitis discovered when Iraq suddenly overran their country in 1990; and as the Iranians learned when Iraq invaded their country 10 years before; and as former Iraqi Prime Minister Abdul-Karim Qassem found out when a young hothead named Saddam Hussein tried to kill him in 1959. That assassination attempt misfired, but it jump-started Saddam's rise to the top of the ultranationalist Baath Party.

Saddam's career shows he is a survivor, not a martyrdom-seeker like 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. But Saddam's path is hardly a cautious one. Men who make their fortune by taking great risks rarely learn to play it safe, wrote Niccolo Machiavelli five centuries ago in The Prince-not even when changed circumstances would seem to call for caution. So while Saddam keeps a tight lid on his subordinates, the ex-assassin still likes to spring the occasional big surprise himself. Gambles that U.S. analysts dismiss as suicidal might look like good options to Saddam-especially since his advisers are too terrified to tell him otherwise.

"You don't want to be the guy to bring him bad news," said Raphael Perl, an analyst with the National Academy of Sciences. So even "if he is deterrable," Perl said of Saddam, "to what degree is he getting the information he needs to make rational decisions?"

America's greatest fear-its declared reason for preparing for war-is that Saddam will lash out at the United States directly one day, maybe even with a weapon of mass destruction. Although most experts agree that Iraq does not have a working nuclear weapon yet, U.N. inspectors in the 1990s found abundant evidence that Saddam had brewed deadly germs, and his forces have already used poison gas.

But he may have a problem using these weapons against the United States. The Iraqi dictator's network of agents around the world has never entirely recovered from the Gulf War. In the early 1990s, "Saddam was very interested in launching terrorist attacks," said Peter Probst, a former CIA terrorism expert who was working in the Pentagon at the time. But "we wrapped up a considerable number of his operatives before they were able to do it." Intelligence agents operating under "official cover" out of a number of Iraqi embassies were expelled, and covert agents were arrested. So while Baghdad vigorously smuggles in weapons components from around the world, its capacity to strike abroad has only grown weaker since its failures in the early 1990s. Saddam could turn to independent contractors, but the Arab nationalists he backed in the 1970s have faded from the scene, and Islamic extremists such as al Qaeda have no love for the secular dictator.

Nevertheless, Iraqi agents are repeatedly rumored to have loosed last fall's anthrax letters on the United States, and to have spread the West Nile virus. Such limited attacks are within Iraq's capabilities. In the worst conceivable case, a few infected Iraqi secret agents might just be able to spread a contagious bioweapon, such as smallpox, across much of the United States before they died. But as attractive as such revenge might be to Iraqi hard-liners, killing Americans this way would do less than nothing to ensure Saddam's survival.

Potentially far more profitable, and definitely far easier, than hitting the United States itself would be mounting a spoiling biological or chemical attack against U.S. forces and bases in the Persian Gulf. A first strike, especially on the soil of his Muslim neighbors, would cost Saddam the European and Islamic opinion he is counting on to discourage a U.S. attack-but if he sees the American onslaught as inevitable anyway, he just might decide to throw this kind of wild card onto the table.

"Our vulnerability is probably greatest during this buildup phase if we have made an announcement that Saddam is toast," said Dan Christman, a retired Army general who was a key strategic planner for Desert Storm. Christman noted that in 1991, one Scud missile warhead filled with conventional explosives hit the U.S. supply base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 28 Americans and wounding nearly 100 others-the deadliest single attack on U.S. troops in the war. Next time, an attack with long-lasting "persistent" chemicals against a U.S. base or a Persian Gulf port could contaminate key equipment-and, just as important, scare off the local workforce supporting America's supply lines.

A pre-emptive Iraqi strike could throw the U.S. buildup off schedule and off balance. But how badly? The answer depends on another key unknown: the power of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The nightmare scenario about Saddam Hussein is that he sets off an atomic bomb in downtown Washington. But the most alarming possibility is not necessarily the most probable. It would take Saddam at least six months to even attempt such an American Hiroshima, if he got lucky in securing stolen ex-Soviet plutonium and getting helpful terrorists to smuggle in and set off a nuclear bomb. It more likely would take years, if Saddam must rely on Iraq's own homegrown capabilities to refine the raw material and its remaining agents abroad to deliver the bomb. Either timeline rules out an Iraqi nuke as part of the looming conflict.

Biological weapons are a more plausible threat. Iraq has definitely brewed the germs and experimented with how to spread them-with uncertain success. But even the sophisticated U.S. and Soviet biowar programs during the Cold War never produced a truly effective weapon for military purposes (as opposed to terror). "It's hard to make this work against people like us who have good sanitation," said Col. Patrick Lang, a retired Army and Defense Department expert on the Middle East. "It's hard to generate an epidemic in that way, especially against the Army in the field, which is fanatically clean."

By contrast, Iraq has used chemical warfare repeatedly, and effectively, in the past. It is this most limited form of attack, for which Iraq has a track record from its eight-year war with Iran, that Saddam is most likely to use in a new war. In one early experiment in 1983, the Iraqis fired mustard gas uphill at Iranian positions, and learned the hard way that mustard gas is heavier than air; the gas drifted back downhill on the advancing Iraqis. But by the war's end in 1988, they had mastered the use of chemical weapons.

The Iraqis' choice of targets was telling. The Iranian commanders often sent into battle dense masses of light infantry, slow moving, poorly equipped, and barely trained. But the Iraqis, even when presented with such nearly ideal targets for poison gas, preferred to hit the Iranians as they assembled behind the lines, rather than in the chaotic conditions of battle itself. According to a study drafted by the Army War College in 1990, Iraqi chemical weapons proved most effective against the Iranian support troops in the rear, by disrupting massed artillery, staging areas, supply lines, and command posts.

In stark contrast to the Iranians, U.S. ground troops are trained and equipped to survive in toxic zones-and they have the mobility to avoid them entirely. "We didn't wear our chemical suits," recalled John Hillen, lieutenant in an armored unit in 1991. "We were going to drive around" any poisoned area.

Supplying U.S. forces with all those vehicles and all that defensive gear, however, requires a huge, immobile infrastructure-exactly the kind of target the Iraqis prefer. The Iraqis' problem, however, is that the U.S. rear is really far to the rear. In the 1980-1988 war against Iran, the Iraqis could mass their artillery to lob chemical shells over the Iranian trenches into their enemy's rear areas. But even the giant, long-range "superguns" that Saddam is reportedly building from smuggled parts could fire shells 35 miles at most: far enough to hit the most-forward U.S. forces in Kuwait, but not the warehouses, airfields, and ports farther to the rear.

As early as the 1980s, the Iraqis experimented with using helicopters and planes to spray poison gas. And recently they have refitted old L-29 training jets, built to train pilots, as remote-controlled drones. But any Iraqi aircraft would have to run a gantlet of U.S. fighters in the no-fly zones as well as missile batteries on the ground. Harder to intercept would be the infamous Scuds, of which any number from six to 60 may have escaped U.N. inspectors. But it takes sophisticated engineering to disperse toxins widely from a missile warhead (explosives burn the chemicals up; a crash drives them into the ground). So Saddam's chemical weapons with the best reach are literally long shots, while his reliable artillery lacks sufficient range to deliver toxins.

As a result, most experts expect what analyst John Pike calls "a drizzle of death": a few lucky shots that catch U.S. troops off guard and cause dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of casualties, but don't derail the invasion.

For the Iraqis to stage a truly damaging chemical attack, the Americans would have to come to them-to get within artillery range and stay there. And Iraq would have to keep its chemical batteries hidden from a wide array of U.S. reconnaissance capabilities and from U.S. retaliation.

As it happens, Iraq does have one kind of obstacle that could effectively slow down American invading forces and shield Iraqi ambushers. It's called a city.

Urban Warriors

U.S. planners did not name the last war on Iraq "Desert Storm" for nothing. The American military's mobility, high-tech sensors, and long-range weapons proved devastating in the desert, where open sands gave the enemy no shelter. Except for Kuwait City, which the Iraqis gave up almost without a fight, American troops carefully bypassed urban areas. But in a war to topple Saddam's regime, U.S. forces may not be able to avoid entering his capital; and in a war to liberate the Iraqi people, American troops may have to venture where the people live.

A city can suck up soldiers like a sponge, and for much the same reason: There are so many holes to go down. Even a jungle offers fewer ambush sites per acre than an urban area, with its multistory buildings above the street, and sewers (and sometimes subways) below. And a jungle isn't full of human beings. Even for militaries with no moral inhibitions against shooting anyone in their way, the fact that civilians do get in the way increases the chaos of urban warfare.

Thus, when the Russians stormed Grozny in 1995, they needed 60,000 troops and a month to subdue the Chechen capital, and they leveled most of it in the process. In 1993, the more-scrupulous U.S. forces in Somalia still ended up killing scores of civilians in Mogadishu, where America's last urban battle ended with 18 dead Americans and a humiliating foreign-policy retreat. The close quarters of Somalia's capital city neutralized the Americans' high-tech advantages and forced them into a brutal short-range battle, man to man (with women and children in the crossfire). U.S. aircraft overhead tried to give directions to the forces on the ground, only to see troops go astray time and time again in the mazelike streets.

Since 1993, the American military has experimented with new gadgets specifically designed for urban combat-miniature robots, sensors that can hear heartbeats through walls-with distinctly mixed results. But while cities can defeat technology, intensive study and drills in urban warfare have highlighted the importance of old-fashioned tactics.

In Grozny, for example, Russian armored columns initially drove straight into the city. But as formidable as tanks can be in the open, they can become blind and blundering giants in the tight confines of the city without friendly foot troops to guide them. Of the 120 armored vehicles in that first assault, the Russians lost 105. Conversely, in Mogadishu, the Clinton administration declined to deploy heavy armor. So the U.S. troops fought unprotected-on foot, in lightly armored Humvees, or in Black Hawk helicopters, which proved so vulnerable to Somali militiamen with crude rocket launchers that the definitive book and movie based on the battle are called Black Hawk Down.

The solution, called "combined arms," is one of the oldest in warfare, dating back to the first Mesopotamian warlord who coordinated his spearmen with his archers. Foot troops, armored vehicles, and helicopters have to work together more closely in a city than anywhere else in battle. The infantry goes first, to flush out hidden enemies who may have anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons-and thus forestall a Grozny-style or Black Hawk Down-style ambush. If unprotected foot troops start getting shot to ribbons, as happened in Mogadishu, armored vehicles and attack helicopters are close behind to blast the nests of resistance into powder. And engineers with explosives and bulldozers are there to clear obstacles that could fatally slow the force.

Traditionally, "the total of our urban training was basically how to clear rooms, one frontal attack after another," said Jim Lasswell, a leading urban warfare experimenter at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va. But with Mogadishu and Grozny in mind, the military is learning how to move through a city without having to level it, and how to focus firepower on a few key objectives without cutting off troops in isolated pockets. The old approach to taking a city was "circle the whole thing, cut it off, and clear it block by block," said Laswell. In the new urban warfare, "you penetrate a city the way you penetrate into a jungle."

Such a selective approach presumes that the city is not completely infested with enemies. But what if it is? "Every house can have a machine-gun position," said George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting). When Hitler made his last stand in Berlin, Friedman said, the remnants of the German army, filled out by "barely armed children and old men," faced the triumphant, well-equipped veterans of Stalin's Red Army. The Soviets lost tens of thousands of men. And the city was reduced to rubble. Friedman fears that Saddam's last stand in Baghdad might turn into a similar bloodbath.

More-optimistic experts predict only pockets of resistance in the Iraqi capital: die-hards holed up in a few formidable but easily isolated redoubts that can be picked off one by one, without heavy American losses or Iraqi civilian casualties. "Very few people are going to die in the streets of Baghdad for Saddam Hussein," predicted retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, before adding the caveat: "But the road to hell is paved with things that people expected that didn't happen."

The most important variable in urban warfare, then, is not the geography of the city or the tactics used to attack it, but the resolve of its defenders.

The Human Factor

A single gunman can sow death and terror, as the Washington area has learned in recent weeks. But waging war takes legions. It is easy to say that "Saddam" will engage in urban or chemical warfare, but obviously the dictator alone can't defend the streets of Baghdad or turn chemical weapons on U.S. forces. Less obviously, neither can generic "Iraqis" take on the Americans. Although the attitude of the general population will determine the postwar reconstruction (or dissolution) of Iraq, in the initial fury of the fighting, most people will probably just keep their heads down. Defending a city or launching a chemical warhead, however, requires an organized force of some kind. The confusing thing is that Iraq has many kinds.

Like most dictators, Saddam insures himself against disloyalty through redundancy: three layers of uniformed soldiers, two rival secret services, and an obscure array of shadowy special groups. It is these legions-not one man, not mobs-that will either fight or fail to. It is the different responses of these different organizations, above all else, that will determine the outcome of the war.

Any regime can be depicted as a series of concentric circles around the center of power. For Iraq's 350,000-strong military, this is literally true. The regular army's 17 divisions defend the country's borders; the elite Republican Guard's seven divisions are held in reserve; and the Special Republican Guard, one handpicked division, defends the city of Baghdad. Even the evolution of the three forces was consecutive. Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 with his regulars, but as the war dragged on, he expanded his Republican Guard from a few palace protectors to an armored counterattack corps. When coup plots and dissent began to fester within the guard, especially after the 1991 Gulf War debacle, Saddam created the Special Republican Guard to be the last-ditch defense force of his regime. The capabilities and loyalties of these three forces vary dramatically.

The regular army fought Iran doggedly, if without fervor or tactical flair, only to collapse before America's Desert Storm. It is unwise to judge all Iraqi regulars by the mass surrenders of 1991: Saddam deliberately exposed his most expendable troops-hastily recalled, half-trained reservists and ill-equipped light infantry-to the U.S. onslaught. Still, a decade of international sanctions against Iraq has starved the mechanized units of spare parts and even usable ammunition, and left them little opportunity to train. Repeated reports say that senior officers in northern Iraq are already making back-channel deals with the Kurdish rebels. For most experts, the debate is not whether Saddam's regulars will fight effectively, but whether they will fight at all.

A bigger unknown is the Republican Guard, whose current strength is estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000 troops. The guard spearheaded Iraq's counteroffensives against Iran, but its record against Americans is mixed: While other Iraqi forces fled in 1991, the guard's Tawalkama division stood and fought-and got run over. Since U.S. air strikes and rapid ground thrusts would probably paralyze Iraq's tightly centralized command system, any future guard resistance would most likely consist of such isolated stands.

Nor are the guards political fanatics: Although "elite," they are picked from the ranks of the regular army, and they include conscripts-many from rebellious Shiite regions in southern Iraq. Yet guard forces brutally suppressed Shiite risings after the Gulf War, saving Saddam's regime. Their responses to a U.S. invasion would probably depend on their commanders, varying from fierce resistance to paralysis to surrender-or even to outright defection to the Americans.

Not even Saddam seems to trust the Republican Guard. He has reportedly banned the guards from entering downtown Baghdad. The capital is garrisoned by the Special Republican Guard, normally about 15,000 strong but able to expand to 20,000 or even 25,000 in a crisis. This force has too few troops to successfully defend Baghdad, a city of nearly 5 million people, but enough to bloody an attacker.

Besides these three main uniformed forces, Iraq has a wide range of paramilitaries. No one expects much from the 20,000 part-timers of "Saddam's Commandos," the Fedayeen, who occupy themselves with thuggery and rallies. Far more professional are the Mukhabarat, the Baath Party's secret police, but they are equipped mainly to disappear dissidents, not to battle armies. By contrast, their rivals in Iraqi military intelligence, the Istikhbarat, include expert commandos.

The most dangerous, loyal, and secretive organizations in Iraq are those assigned to defend Saddam himself and his prized instruments of power: his weapons of mass destruction. "We certainly were up against some high-quality people [from] the elite security service," said former U.N. weapons inspector Terence Taylor, who now heads the D.C. office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And, Taylor added, "they were very quick, if weaknesses were shown, to replace somebody."

The Bush administration has tried to deter Saddam's subordinates from launching chemical or biological attacks by threatening retaliation immediately and war crimes trials later. But these weapons are tended by the same men who are trusted to guard the dictator himself, men bound to him by blood-not only the blood of Saddam's clan, but the blood of those they have tortured and killed for him. The Americans might well spare these men if they let Saddam fall. Their fellow Iraqis would not. Knowing that, "they will fight," said Rahman Aljebouri, an Iraqi schoolteacher who deserted the army and joined up with Shiite rebels before fleeing the country. "They will be scared of revenge from the people. They are criminals themselves. What kind of option will they feel they have?"

How large is this hard core, the Iraqis who are so tied to Saddam, so complicit in his crimes, that they will see no other option but to fight for him to the end? Aljebouri estimates this group at more than 50,000. Others guess far fewer: including perhaps 3,000 in the Special Security Organization guarding the weapons of mass destruction, some of the Special Republican Guards, and the senior officials of the secret police. But until the American hammer is obviously about to fall, no one can really know.

And that really means no one. Not U.S. analysts. Not Saddam himself. Not even the Iraqi elites who are at this moment quietly agonizing over whether they-and their families-are more likely to survive if they stand by Saddam or if they sell him out. If enough of them defect, it will become impossible for Iraq to wage chemical or urban warfare, and the entire country will fall faster than occupied Kuwait did in 1991. If these leaders hold firm, and if they ruthlessly, effectively exploit Iraqi cities and poison gas as defenses, then the second Gulf War will be far bloodier than the first. In the end, it is up to the nation's elite. The most crucial battle of the war, the one that shapes the outcome of all the others, will be the one fought inside the minds of these important Iraqis.