Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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November 4, 2002

Preparations Indicate US Readiness for Conflict With Iraq, Initiated by Air War, Starting Late November 2002

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS, with input from field reports. The framework, timing, political and military doctrine for the US-led attack on Iraq is taking shape, with the prospect of Coalition air assaults being ready to begin against Iraqi targets in about the third week of November 2002 — before the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan — and with formal Coalition ground force insertion possibly occurring at the beginning of January 2003. Coalition special forces — US, British, Australian and possibly French and New Zealand — would engage inside Iraq well before the formal ground force entry, and not just as target designators for air attacks, but to engage in specific intelligence and sabotage operations.

The emerging timeframe has been highlighted by the growing US pressure on the United Nations decisionmaking process to come up with a suitable resolution to set the stage for military action. As well, the US mid-term Congressional elections and the Turkish general elections would have been disposed-of on November 5 and 3, 2002, respectively.

This GIS assessment of the basic timing appears to agree with reports emerging from Iraq as to Iraqi expectations of US intentions.

Iraqi Disposition: It seems likely that Iraqi Army regular forces — the least capable and least trusted of the ground forces — would be deployed around Mosul to the north and Basra to the south, apart from the continued deployment of a substantial force of Army, Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard with the al-Quds forces in the far West, poised for operations against Israel. Substantial Iraqi Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces, along with air defense forces, would center around Baghdad and the national command authority.

Given the different geopolitical scenario of 2002-03 compared with 1990-91, Coalition forces must be expected to channel substantially up the highways from the Persian Gulf and down the main highway from the north. Just as this forced channeling made the Iraqi forces vulnerable during the 1991 Gulf War, so it now makes invading forces vulnerable to pre-positioned massive explosives. Some Western analysts believe that if Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein has even one nuclear weapon — or at least a nuclear device — it would be pre-positioned to destroy incoming US forces, possibly along with a substantial number of Iraqis, along such a funnel or choke-point.

GIS sources indicate that the general feeling among most regional and Iraqi military leaders is that Iraq cannot resist a US assault, but could only hope to make the US entry as costly as possible as soon in the war as possible, and then to draw out the fighting into Baghdad to the point where the US media would make continued US engagement untenable. This is a high-risk strategy for Pres. Saddam, but possibly the only one open to him, apart from the hope of widening the war by attacking Israel and attempting to create a broadly-based new Arab-Israeli War, which would deny regional basing to the US and which would in many ways vitiate Coalition freedom of action in air, ground and sea-space adjacent to Iraq or essential to the war against it.

It is assumed that Pres. Saddam has a personal exit strategy, to sustain the myth that he could not personally be defeated by the US.

Significantly, although there are many Iraqi military personnel who would be prepared to abandon Pres. Saddam at the earliest opportunity, many Iraqis look at the US handling of the Afghanistan situation and extrapolate that, in the Iraqi context, national unity would be lost and, like Afghanistan, a weak central government would see the rise of separatist, regionalist forces.

Significantly, the principal anticipated US allies in the war against Saddam are the Kurdish groupings in the Iraqi north. However, an end to the Saddam Administration and the imposition of a central Government acceptable to the West would mean an immediate end to the principal source of Kurdish wealth: control of illegally smuggled oil through Kurdish territory to Turkey. At the same time, it has been the Kurdish rôle in smuggling oil into Turkey which has to a large extent kept Turkey from its military forays against the Kurds inside Iraq. For the Kurds, then, the overthrow of Saddam — despite his past atrocities against the Kurds — would presage a worsened security and economic situation.

Iraqi Doctrine: Almost certainly, the main forces of the Iraqi Army would be used merely to slow up any Coalition ground force penetration toward Baghdad. The principal fighting would be conducted in an urban environment in Baghdad, and possibly some of the corridor urban areas leading to it. Although US analysts are, for the most part, anticipating that Saddam would utilize some exotic chemical weapons, it would be most likely that the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units would mostly use mustard gas weapons, either mortar-delivered or in booby-traps. Mustard agent is easily made and stores well, and the Iraqi Armed Forces have considerable experience in its use.

Iraqi special forces personnel were known to have witnessed and learned from the Israeli operations in Jenin, earlier in 2002, just as US special forces personnel also witnessed the operations while accompanying Israel Defense Force (IDF) special forces units in the IDF attacks. The booby-trapping of much of Jenin by Palestinian forces — many of whom were supported by, or trained by Iraqi special forces — will almost certainly be emulated inside Iraqi urban areas, but on a more devastating scale, given the fact that Saddam has demonstrated a clear willingness to sacrifice large numbers of Iraqis to defend his position. Principal urban weapons will be RPG (rocket-propelled grenades) and sniper fire, apart from the mortar-delivered and booby-trap (improvised explosive device: IED) mustard-gas weapons.

This will substantially slow up Coalition progress through urban areas, and, with an anticipated one-in-10 IEDs and mortar rounds being mustard, Coalition forces will need to “suit up” in chemical protection attire, and operate under closed-down conditions in armored vehicles for much of the fighting. This will make the conflict far more costly, slow and messy than the 1991 Gulf War.

Although there has been concern over possible Iraqi Army acquisition of as many as 2,800 Renault tanker trucks, GIS analysts were more concerned with finding evidence of Iraqi acquisition of field kitchen units, which would be the key to the preparation of mustard and other agents for IEDs and mortar payloads. Nonetheless, it is possible that the tanker trucks themselves could form the basis of mobile IEDs.

External Preparation: There is ongoing concern within key US and allied military circles as to whether all factors have been considered carefully enough by the US leadership, before embarking on the war against Saddam. Significantly, none of the military sources contacted by GIS doubted the US-led Coalition’s ability to succeed in overthrowing the Saddam Government and subduing Iraq, provided the White House was to sustain its will. There was some doubt expressed by even US sources that the Bush Administration could sustain the will to total victory if the fighting became protracted and the casualties became serious, while at the same time media criticism became pronounced. However, White House sources indicate that the Bush Administration felt that it had no option other than to push ahead, despite difficulties, because any withdrawal partway through the operation would lead to a decisive and protracted escalation from Islamist groups as well as from Muslim states alienated by the war.

Israeli forces were themselves preparing for an escalation in regional conflict, and were clearly not depending on US protection in a possible wider war. The Israel Air Force (IAF) was scheduled to begin exercises on a full war footing during the week of November 3, 2002, with all facets of the IAF involved.

Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier USS Constellation departed its home base of San Diego, California, on November 2, 2002, at the head of a six-ship carrier battle group on a six-month mission was brought forward from early 2003. The USS Abraham Lincoln carrier group is already in the Persian Gulf and there would be a period where both of them were deployed simultaneously in the Gulf. Another US carrier group is in the Mediterranean, giving some 225 combat aircraft available for action against Iraq, apart from US Air Force aircraft in the region, and from US and European bases.

The US Defense Department said during the last week of October 2002 that B-2 strategic bombers would be sent to bases in Britain and the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, putting them closer to Iraq. The US Navy also said on November 1, 2002, that it was looking for commercial shipping to take ammunition and vehicles to the Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea amid a repositioning of US forces. The USN has already awarded a stream of contracts to take armor, ammunition and other military equipment to the region ahead of any military intervention in Iraq. US Defense Department officials said that they expected the contracts to be completed in time for delivery of the equipment in late November or early December 2002.

A United Nations vote on Iraq by November 8, 2002, and Russia said that the Security Council was nearing agreement on the terms for resuming weapons inspections in Iraq, but that “serious” disagreement remained over the US threat of force.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, again met Security Council members on November 1, 2002, and UN inspectors were due to go to Larnaca, Cyprus, on November 2-3, 2002, to start setting up a staging post for their operations in Iraq. Blix had said that an advance party could arrive in Baghdad between seven and 10 days after a resolution was adopted. GIS sources, however, have noted the difficulty which UN inspectors were likely to face in finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) assets, because of the extensive programs — reported earlier — of placing assets on mobile trucks and riverine barges (on the Tigris-Euphrates river systems), in Syria, and in Libya.

Iraqi opposition figures indicated that they would meet in Brussels from November 22 to November 25, 200, in a bid to formulate a common vision of Iraq's future. Representatives of the whole spectrum of the Iraqi opposition, academics, tribal figures and others were invited to attend the gathering, totaling around 200, said Hamed al-Bayati, London representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Invitations would also be sent to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a number of European countries and to Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt.