Bush administration debates whether and how to attack Saddam Hussein
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Iraqi military isn't what it used to be, but it still has some punch.
Enough punch that an Afghanistan-style proxy war, using insurgent groups backed by U.S. airstrikes and small numbers of special forces, probably wouldn't topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials say.
Unlike the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, Iraq has a large standing army, modern air defenses and short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. U.S. intelligence agencies also believe Iraq has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
Iraq's military capabilities have became a more pressing question with comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell that President Bush is considering a "regime change" and "the most serious set of options one might imagine" for dealing with Saddam.
With between 350,000 and 400,000 troops, Iraq's military is only about 40 percent as large as it was before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi occupiers out of Kuwait and routed much of Saddam's army, then the fourth-largest in the world.
Iraq's military is now geared toward fighting insurgents and keeping Saddam in power, U.S. officials said. Before the Gulf War, its prime function was to make Iraq a regional power.
It "remains capable of defeating more poorly armed internal opposition groups and threatening Iraq's neighbors," CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee last week.
Rebel forces aren't strong enough to take on the Iraqi army without U.S. ground forces, experts say. The Iraqi National Congress, a London-based opposition group that seeks international support to overthrow Saddam, is regarded as unreliable by many in Washington.
The Bush administration has been engaged in an internal debate over whether and how to strike Iraq, with the aim of deposing Saddam and ending the country's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
Inside Iraq, many of Saddam's regular army units are arrayed in the north and southeastern parts of the country to keep down opposition.
Kurds, protected by an umbrella of U.S. and British jets enforcing a no-fly zone, have set up safe enclaves in northern Iraq. The Iraqi military has largely defeated the southern Shiite Muslim insurgency despite a second no-fly zone in that region. U.S. warplanes patrolling the flight interdiction zones regularly bomb Iraqi air defenses that target them.
Many of Iraq's best troops in the Republican Guard remain closer to Baghdad as Saddam's private guards.
Iraq's equipment is largely of pre-1990, Warsaw-Pact vintage. Iraq has about 2,000 tanks, including a few hundred relatively modern T-72s, and a few hundred jet fighters and interceptors, defense officials said.
It's unclear how effectively maintained they are. U.N. sanctions, in force since Saddam sent troops into Kuwait in August 1990, have made spare parts hard to get.
"They have had no significant military modernization for a decade, where we have made massive strides in every area of capability," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Iraqi military is vastly improved, however, in its ability to hide and disperse its equipment, especially items related to its program for developing weapons of mass destruction, defense officials said. Some of the facilities are believed ensconced in bunkers, beneath hospitals or in Saddam's palaces.
Iraq's weapons program is a wild card in any U.S. effort to overthrow him. If threatened personally, he may use biological or chemical weapons, either on Israel or U.S. forces.
Iraq is allowed ballistic missiles that can hit targets no more than 90 miles away, but defense officials say those missiles could easily be upgraded to hit more distant targets, such as Israel. It probably also has a few hidden Scud missiles, which can reach Israel, left from the Gulf War.
The CIA is authorized to try to destabilize Saddam's government. Most of Saddam's advisers and military commanders are loyal, however, partly because he has executed most of the others. Thus, fomenting a palace coup is regarded as unlikely.
Iraq is believed to export relatively little terrorism, especially compared with its neighbor, Iran, which backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, among others. U.S. intelligence has found nothing directly linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The best-known terrorist organization thought to be in Iraq is that headed by Abu Nidal, who split from Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, claiming Arafat was too willing to compromise with Israel. Abu Nidal, whose real name is Sabri al-Banna, hasn't targeted Western interests since the late 1980s.
The United States might base any anti-Saddam offensive on Iraq's refusal to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country, but the large U.S. military presence in the Middle East is incapable of launching a ground war without reinforcements.
Support from U.S. allies, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia, would be critical in any new war against Iraq, Cordesman said. Saudi Arabia may be tiring of the U.S. presence on its soil, and Turkey almost certainly would not help the United States support Kurdish rebels seeking independence in northern Iraq. Turkey has a large and restive Kurdish population in its eastern areas, and it opposes Kurdish stirrings anywhere in the region.