The coming war over Iraq: prelude, course, aftermath

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 August 2002

While there are indications of substantial differences between some of the senior US military and the civilian security establishment in the Bush administration, it is clear that it is the latter who are now dominant in the argument over how to handle the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The bottom line was expressed with admirable clarity by John Bolton of the State Department ten days ago when he emphasised that it was not sufficient for United Nations (UN) inspectors to be allowed back into Iraq – US policy was to terminate the regime itself.

The timing of that process remains unclear, although January rather than November is more likely, but the signs are that substantial military action will be taken. It is just possible that the full resumption of comprehensive inspections, coupled with strong regional and European opposition to US action might be sufficient to hold back the process, but this is frankly unlikely. Nor will queries raised by some military officers be enough to deter the Bush administration from its set path.

There is a very firm determination in Washington to change the leadership in Iraq, replacing it with a pro-Western regime. Indeed, it is even believed that the removal of Saddam Hussein would actually improve the prospects for a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

With some months to go to a new Middle East war, there are a number of key questions to ask. The main questions are straightforward and can give some surprising answers. Why is the US determined to destroy the regime when it has already been weakened by eleven years of sanctions? What form would the attack take, and how would the regime respond to its imminent destruction?

Why attack Iraq?

Take the reasons for the intended US action first. Clearly it is not just about the UN inspection process, for there is a palpable sense in Washington that full access for the inspectors is just about the last thing that is wanted. Part of the reason for this is that the security advisers behind Bush do not believe that inspections can uncover everything.

Moreover, there are vivid memories of the first Gulf War when it was known that the Iraqis had chemical and biological weapons (CBW) and were ready to use them if the regime was threatened with destruction (see an earlier article). The Washington view is that they either have such weapons now or will have very soon, so early pre-emption is essential.

Those memories of 1991 are also relevant in two other ways. Firstly, what appeared to be a total victory was achieved with ease partly because the Iraqis did not even commit their best troops to the war zone, regime survival being their primary goal. Those troops were then available to destroy the Shi’ite and Kurdish rebellions.

A second aspect is that the Scud missiles fired against Israel and Saudi Arabia in 1991 were a damaging diversion for the US. It is also recognised that the Scud that just missed an ammunition depot at al-Jubayl during the closing stages of the war could have caused a catastrophe (see an earlier article for details). The Iraqi policy of withholding its best troops in 1991 supports the idea that its military have a fair degree of tactical competence and could therefore be a threat in the future. This, along with the effect of the Scuds, does demonstrate the capacity of relatively weak states to deter even a superpower, an entirely unacceptable situation for the US.

The Bush administration is particularly firm when it comes to international security, and this has been much strengthened by the 9/11 attacks and the consequent and crucial need to regain control after such a shock. The unilateralist outlook places US security interests at the forefront of foreign policy and it is simply unacceptable to have rogue states in an axis of evil able to develop weapons of mass destruction that might deter the US from necessary interventions.

In this respect, terminating the regime of Saddam Hussein would set a very firm example to other regimes, not least Iran. As one influential Republican with impeccable oil links put it recently: ‘If we sort out Iraq right, we may not even have to go for Iran.’

Yet there is a further reason that receives far less attention – the regional geopolitics of oil. As an earlier article emphasised, the Persian Gulf oil reserves are truly staggering – twice as large as all of the rest of the world’s oil fields put together, and more than twenty times larger than the dwindling reserves of the US itself.

Among the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia is by far the most important, yet there is increasing evidence of internal instability, a deep undercurrent of anti-American sentiment, and even evidence that much of the financial and other support from al-Qaida comes from within the Kingdom. Second only to Saudi Arabia as a repository of easily extracted high-quality oil reserves is Iraq, currently controlled by Saddam Hussein. Replacing this regime with one that is compliant with US interests would therefore involve the substantial bonus of countering the importance of Saudi Arabia.

When we combine US unilateralism with a specific unwillingness to allow opponents to develop deterrent forces and add in the importance of Iraqi oil, we get some idea of the reasons for the determination of the administration to go to war with Iraq. Within this outlook there lies the belief that such a war will be winnable and that a US ally in Iraq will ensure that other states in the region will come to heel in the face of this determination. Thus the region will be made safe for the West in general and the US in particular.

What kind of war?

In preparation for the war, the production of precision-guided weapons has been accelerated, partly to replace those used in Afghanistan but mainly to have large enough stocks for use against Iraq. Munitions plants are currently working twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and the production of chemical and biological warfare suits has also been increased.

Supplies are already being moved into the region, a large air base in Qatar is being prepared as an alternative to Saudi facilities and the existing aircraft carrier battle group in the Gulf is likely to be augmented by a second by the end of the year. One or two more carrier battle groups will be deployed before the war starts.

Many army units are currently training for desert and urban operations, and there is a particular emphasis on special forces and the equipment needed to move them around within Iraq. In a move unreported in the standard media, the US already has repair teams actually inside Iraq, working on three airfields in northern, Kurdish-controlled, areas.

The exact nature of the attack is beginning to become clear and looks like being a combination of the different options that have been discussed so widely in the press. A core component will be the massive use of air power to destroy the command and control systems of the Iraqi military, using cruise missiles, stealth bombers and strike aircraft and B-1B and B-52 strategic bombers, the latter operating from Diego Garcia and probably from Britain.

Air defences, air bases, army barracks and presidential palaces will all be hit, and power supplies throughout much of the country will be destroyed. Some of the cruise missiles will disperse long carbon fibre strands to short-circuit electrical switching stations, and a form of bomb first used in Serbia will have a similar function.

A new type of weapon, a version of the wind corrected munitions dispenser (WCMD), will be used that disperses huge numbers of microscopic carbon fibres that drift in the wind. These can get into even the smallest of electrical components, damaging computers, air conditioners, communications equipment and anything else with electrical circuits.

Another new type of weapon will be used extensively – the high-power microwave weapon that produces a near-instantaneous electrical pulse or ‘spike’ which destroys computer memories and damages electrical components. Microwave weapons will be used, in particular, against sites believed to contain chemical or biological weapons in an effort to prevent these being used.

The air attacks are confidently expected to do massive damage to the regime’s ability to use its security forces, especially the Republican Guard, but it is recognised that this will not, in itself, destroy the regime. For that to happen, there has to be substantial US intervention on the ground, although this is unlikely to involve a major conventional assault on Baghdad.

Instead, there will be three forms of ground action. One will be an invasion of the south-eastern region of Iraq, including Basra, to take over and control the major oil fields there. A second will be sufficient troops to control the oil-producing regions of the Kurdish north, to protect the newly established air bases and to prevent any kind of Iraqi counter attack. Both of these actions are expected to be opposed, especially that around Basra, and there will be very heavy use of air strikes to limit US casualties. High levels of collateral damage and civilian deaths are almost inevitable, not least in and around Basra where urban conflict is likely.

The third ground action will be the use of highly mobile troops in moves towards Baghdad itself. Their primary aim will not be to destroy the regime directly, but rather to force it to bring the Republican Guard Divisions and Special Republican Guard Brigades out into the open. There, they will be exposed to the full force of US air attack, some of it operating out of northern Iraq itself. This will include the extensive use of cluster bombs, carpet-bombing with conventional bombs and the probable use of fuel–air explosive.

One significant point is that most of the ordinary Iraqi army units will not be subject to attack unless they appear to be a threat to US troops. The thinking is that they will be required to help stabilise Iraq once the regime has fallen.

Within a matter of days, it is believed that Iraqi military communications will be virtually defunct, the regime will be cut off from its oil supplies and the elite Republican Guard forces will be in the process of being destroyed. Within weeks, and certainly before the summer, the regime will be finished, and will be replaced by an acceptable leadership drawing on elements of the regular army to establish post-war stability.

It hardly needs to be said that the side effects on the Iraqi economy and the well being of its people will be devastating. One of the core US requirements will be to minimise the casualties among its own troops and this will involve the massive and continual use of air power. Experience of the tactics used in the first Gulf War and in Serbia shows that, quite apart from large numbers of civilians killed and injured directly in the attacks, there will be sustained damage to the economy as power supplies, transport and communications are destroyed.

Without electrical power, sewage and water purification plants will not operate. As bridges and other transport nodes are destroyed, the domestic economy will grind to a halt. As in 1991, the effects will be felt by ordinary people for months and years afterwards.

Even so, there is a belief that this is a price worth paying, and that the end result will be a pliant regime, sympathetic to and dependent on Washington for security, and controlling some of the world’s richest oil reserves. The US position in the Middle East will be secure and an effective example will have been made of an unacceptable threat. Perhaps most important of all, other states will have been impressed by American determination and will be far more cautious in their approach to regional security.

The war from Baghdad

What of the view from Baghdad? Almost certainly, the dominant strand of thinking within the regime of Saddam Hussein is the imperative for regime survival. This transcends every other objective and was evident in 1991 when the conscript defenders in and around Kuwait were sacrificed to preserve the regime.

In recent years, Baghdad has worked diligently to improve its relations with neighbouring states. This has not always been easy, especially with Iran, but the overall effect has been to ease tensions, not least by showing evidence of support for the Palestinians that has gone down well in terms of Arab public opinion. Moreover, it has made Saudi Arabia deeply reluctant to become involved in support of the US. Whatever else happens, this will be at a much lower level than in 1991.

The regime has also sought to encourage opposition to the war from France and Russia, not least by offering contracts and possibly by indicating that past debts may be repaid. It has also sought Chinese aid in rebuilding its air defences, conscious of China’s long-term interest in Gulf oil as its own reserves run down.

The regime of Saddam Hussein has been helped in its aim to represent an attack on Iraq as an attack on the Arab world by the widely perceived support that Washington has given to the Sharon government. The fact that it is US helicopters and strike aircraft that the Israelis use persistently in attacks on Palestinian targets lends support to this view.

Iraq will also prevaricate mightily on the matter of inspections, continuing to make a range of offers that attract international approval. There remains controversy over whether the regime really does have CBW, but it must be remembered that the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspectors only really ran into trouble in the late 1990s when they appeared to be getting close to these weapons and their production facilities.

From the regime’s point of view, CBW systems constituted a last ditch deterrent in 1991 and would do so again. The US military expect CBW use and are planning for it. If they are right that the regime has useable CBW, then full inspections will not be encouraged, even if prevarication lasts for some months.

The regime will recognise that it cannot rely on the Iraqi people as a whole, only the million or so who constitute the elite and have a vested interest in regime survival. It will be broadly aware of US plans for military action and will have undertaken a full-scale process of dispersal and disguise for its elite forces. It may well have back-up communications systems hardened against precision strike and microwave attack, and may have dispersed its CBW systems to prevent their early destruction.

Its tactics in response to US attack will probably have three elements. One will be to make the war as difficult and as long lasting as possible, even if this means allowing US troops into Baghdad itself and only engaging them at close range. Such engagement may well involve CBW weapons, but there may also be delivery systems available to direct these at US bases in northern Iraq and in Kuwait and Qatar.

The focus, though, will be on Baghdad, a sprawling city of nearly five million people. There will be a ready recognition that the Republican Guard units are the key to the conflict and that their survival will be hastened by dispersing them and drawing the US forces into urban combat. There may be limited use of chemical weapons early in this conflict, to force the US troops to fight in their restrictive CBW suits.

The extent of the fighting is almost impossible to assess, and depends partly on whether the majority of the Iraqi population supports the regime, or acts against it. The former may seem unlikely, but it is not easy to assess the ordinary people’s response to what would clearly be a foreign force seeking to occupy the city. In any case, one possible effect of a war in Baghdad could be immediate and massive movements of refugees, complicating US war efforts.

What is important is that any major urban resistance would be countered by US firepower and would most likely cause many casualties. When the Israelis laid siege to West Beirut in the summer of 1982, they faced just a few thousand determined Palestinian militia, equipped mostly with light weapons. The Israelis lost 250 troops but used such firepower that at least 10,000 Palestinians and Lebanese died, most of them civilians.

While the regime will seek in every way to extend the war, there will still be a quiet recognition that the US does have the military means to destroy Iraq. Its forces and its economy are both weak after eleven years of sanctions, whereas the US has even greater military strength. It follows that more vigorous responses should be expected, bearing in mind the absolute requirement of regime survival. If that is clearly and unequivocally threatened, then almost anything goes.

One of the less-remembered aspects of the Gulf War was the firing of 360 Kuwaiti oil wells and the consequent destruction of five million barrels of oil and widespread environmental damage. A US invasion of the Iraqi oil fields around Basra might result in a similar sabotaging of these fields. If this were accompanied by paramilitary actions against Kuwaiti and Saudi refineries and oil fields, the effect on world oil prices would be considerable, especially if the targets were contaminated with chemical or radiological weapons.

Iraq may have some delivery systems for CBW, including Scud missiles, and even a limited use of these against targets in Kuwait or Turkey would have a substantial political impact. Any use against Israel would lead to an Israeli response, which would further increase regional support for the regime. Effective use of CBW against US troops, civilian targets in Kuwait or elsewhere, or attacks on Israel, would raise the serious possibility of a US or Israeli nuclear response, breaking a threshold that has held since Nagasaki.


The war itself carries a range of major risks, most of them related to the determination of Washington to destroy the regime and the even greater determination of the regime to survive. Even if the US action succeeds, though, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the consequences will be as expected. Given the widespread existing antipathy towards the US that exists throughout the region, the idea that a client regime in Iraq would be stable is dubious in the extreme.

In the very best case scenario for Washington, a quick war with few casualties and little economic aftermath terminates the regime and replaces it with one that is acceptable. For reasons given above, this is frankly unlikely but it is possible. But if this were to happen, it would confirm the views of all of those throughout the region who see control of Arab oil as a requirement for Washington. In the short term, it might appear successful, but in the longer term it would be an utter gift to al-Qaida and similar organisations, confirming all that they have been saying for more than a decade.

Thus, a war with Iraq should be expected to be hugely costly in human terms and to carry with it the greatest risk of escalation to the use of weapons of mass destruction since the Cuba missile crisis of forty years ago. Its aftermath, even if apparently ‘successful’ from Washington’s perspective, would entail the development of further opposition to foreign occupation and control. It would be directly counterproductive not only for the region but even for the US itself.

Given the doubts being expressed in Europe, the Middle East and even within the US, some of these issues are now being recognised. It remains possible that they may collectively lead to an alternative approach coming to the fore. There remains time for this to happen but the determination and persistence of the Washington security establishment runs very deep.

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