Iraq – a timetable for war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 August 2002

Until the hawkish speech of Vice-President Dick Cheney this week, the strong sentiments expressed since early summer from within the Bush administration in favour of war with Iraq seemed to have been overtaken by more sceptical voices. A number of senior Republicans have added their weight to the caution expressed by Colin Powell, with Brent Scowcroft and James Baker two of the most prominent.

Both men were significant players during the 1991 war, as was Powell himself, but neither has condemned the actual idea of a war against the Saddam Hussein regime. Instead, they have urged the need for coalition-building and for a cautious approach that contrasts strongly with the Rumsfeld–Wolfowitz–Cheney axis that is so committed to action.

Their caution probably stems from three factors. The first is their own experience of coalition-building, with its preference for gaining support from numerous states for any military adventure that might take unexpected turns. The second is their inside knowledge of the 1991 conflict, and the manner in which it could so easily have escalated to the use of chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons.

The final factor is probably the most important – their concern that if a war goes wrong in any substantial way, it will limit George Bush’s chances of re-election. Given that the lead-up to the 2004 election starts in earnest in early 2003, a war with Iraq that dragged through into next summer would be a disaster for the Republicans. The party was only just able to take the Presidency, thanks to the unusual style of democracy evident in Florida, and there is an utter determination to hold on to power.

Despite these reservations, and recent statements from Hosni Mubarak and other Arab leaders, the commitment of the Bush administration to terminate the Iraqi regime remains strong. Furthermore, whatever the concerns that may exist among some of the professional military, the reality is that war planning and the deployment of forces is already more advanced than is commonly realised. This is probably the best indicator that a war is intended, although this week’s substantial air raids against targets in southern Iraq serve as a reminder that, in one sense, the 1991 war never really ended.

Setting the coordinates: from Turkey to Qatar

What is actually happening in the region gives us a further indication of the likely conduct of a war, at least from the US perspective, and makes it possible to put further details into the broad picture that was indicated in the previous article in this series.

The first point to recall, though, is that the United States already had substantial forces and pre-positioned supplies in the region long before the current tensions began to develop. Ever since the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force at the end of the 1970s and its elevation into US Central Command a few years later, the US has sought to sustain a strong capability to intervene in support of its regional interests, these revolving almost entirely around oil security (see a previous article).

Much of this capability has resided in ships that support the US Marine Corps, not least the Maritime Prepositioning Fleet that can be deployed rapidly from the United States, carrying everything down to drinking water for the troops. Other supplies are kept on land at various locations in the region itself, although the most important base outside Kuwait is actually the British Indian Ocean island territory of Diego Garcia. Its large sheltered lagoon is home to numerous supply ships and its air base is large enough to handle the largest bombers, such as the B-52.

Yet even with all these general capabilities, there remains the problem of Saudi Arabia and its probable reluctance to be involved in the war, unlike in 1991. What is now becoming clear is that this has been anticipated, and that other states in the region are replacing Saudi Arabia as launch points for the war.

One of the most significant is Turkey, which has recently asked the United States to provide, as a matter of urgency, Patriot air defence missile systems to protect its most vulnerable sites close to Iraq. These will almost certainly be forthcoming, not just because the US has to have the use of its large base at Incirlik, but also because Turkey is likely to be an important launch point for action in Iraq itself.

According to Defense News, a well-informed US defence weekly, US officials have recently been seeking details of certain Turkish airfields, together with data on the cargo-handling capacity of Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. One reason why this is significant is that there is a rail connection from the port to a rail route via the south-eastern Turkish cities of Malatya and Diyarbakir through to within 130 kilometres of the border with Iraq.

While the Turkish government has real concerns about a US war with Iraq, and faces substantial domestic opposition, it is even more worried that if the war went ahead without its involvement, then Kurdish Iraq might split from the rest of Iraq and serve as a focus for a united Kurdistan. In practice this is unlikely, not least because of internal Kurdish disunity, but Turkey remains concerned and this is almost certainly the main reason why it has substantial military forces, possibly up to 5,000 troops, already operating inside the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

As mentioned in the previous article US special forces and logistical groups are already operating in northern Iraq and have been repairing three airfields under Kurdish control. These are now reported to be capable of handling C-130 transport aircraft, and may be developed to handle the much larger C-17, capable of airlifting main battle tanks and other heavy equipment.

The existence of these bases, within C-130 range of Incirlik, means that the US is already in a position to move significant military forces in and out of northern Iraq, operating in areas not under the control of the Baghdad regime. To put it bluntly, in one sense, US military operations on the ground in Iraq have already started.

If Turkey is significant and Saudi Arabia is largely out of the picture, what are the other areas of the US build-up? Unconfirmed reports of joint US–Jordanian army exercises may be accurate, but they do not necessarily indicate that Jordan would support a US operation. The states that are really significant are, undoubtedly, Kuwait and Qatar.

Kuwait now houses some 10,000 US troops at existing bases and at other locations now being established. Most of the equipment for these troops is already stored in Kuwait, but much more can be brought in quickly, to be married up with troops airlifted in from the United States. Given the extent of the pre-positioning of supplies, the movement of troops could be accelerated at short notice, to allow for 50–100,000 within a very few weeks.

Kuwait would be the launch point for any US ground intervention into the oil-rich parts of Iraq around Basra, and it is also the location of major air bases. At the same time, it is also considered to be uncomfortably close to Iraq itself, and much of the build-up of air forces is focusing on air bases much further to the south.

Bases in Muscat and even Oman may be significant, but the main focus of recent attention has been the extraordinarily rapid expansion of the Al-Udeid Air Base near Doha on the east coast of Qatar. Large new areas of aircraft hard-standings and sun shelters have been established, new reinforced aircraft hangars have been built, and a large tent city has been established. The base already has large numbers of tanker and electronic surveillance aircraft operating there, and could handle a hundred or more strike aircraft.

Perhaps most significant is the establishment of a new Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Al-Udeid. This is the centre that would coordinate all the air operations against Iraq from around the region, whether planes were flying from Kuwait, Turkey, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates or Qatar itself.

Up until now, the CAOC for the region has been at the Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, but the question mark over Saudi support has led to this remarkable decision to match the Saudi centre with an entirely new one in a neighbouring country. If firm evidence was needed that the US military was preparing for a full-scale war with Iraq, this is about as good as one could get.

A timetable for war

Despite all the rhetoric, the range of likely timings for a war against Saddam Hussein has changed little in the past month. It is still more probable in the very early part of next year, but there are two factors that could bring it forward to this autumn. One is that the current movement of US troops into northern Iraq could be augmented substantially, it could be given substantial publicity and it could be accompanied by the establishment of bases in western Iraq.

Attempts by the regime to counter such moves would be met by very heavy use of air power, and the idea would be to cripple morale within the Iraqi armed forces, making a coup more likely. If this course of action was taken, we could see a slide to war within three months.

The other factor is that the Iraqi regime could decide to pre-empt a US attack by some kind of deliberate provocation in the very near future. Since senior US officials have made it abundantly clear that the return of the UN inspectors is not sufficient, and that the regime must be destroyed, then the regime itself will only make offers relating to inspection as a means of limiting regional and European support for the US.

The Baghdad leadership is fully aware that Washington intends war, and Donald Rumsfeld’s statement, that this will be done with or without coalition support, reinforces this view. On this basis, it is certainly possible that the regime might prefer an early conflict, before the US has all its forces ready. Therefore, there is a clear possibility of a very sudden escalation that could happen, at a few days notice, at any time in the next six months. January is still the more probable date for the start of the conflict, but this is much less certain than a month or so ago.

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