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At the Front, Military Reassesses Iraqi Capacity

ONE week after coalition forces launched their first pre-dawn strike against Iraq, a note of sober caution has crept into the war stories officers are telling here and in Washington, tempering the initial jubilation they had voiced about early successes. Pre-war speculation in some quarters that the Iraqi military structure would succumb rapidly to coalition air attacks has proved ill-founded as have projections that Iraqi foot soldiers would soon desert en masse after a taste of heavy bombardment.

Today, as air strikes continue against targets in Iraq and Kuwait, and as ground forces maneuver into position for an assault on enemy lines, the prevailing sentiment here is that the thunder and lightning of Operation Desert Storm will likely develop into persistent heavy rain.

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Military spokesmen refuse to hazard a forecast as to how long the war might last. But senior strategists say they will not be rushed.

``I don't think any of the military planners expected instantaneous success,'' says United States Air Force Col. Ervin Sharpe, commander of a large air base in eastern Saudi Arabia. ``We have a strategic campaign that we are going to wage, and we will do it over whatever time period that it takes.''

Seven nights and days of unprecedentedly intense air raids on Iraq have reduced President Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war, US spokesmen say. But they are unsure of just how much damage has been done since bad weather over target areas has impeded bomb damage assessment. Yesterday, the weather cleared over Iraq, although clouds and smoke from oil installations that Iraq blew up Tuesday may cloud vision artificially.

Meanwhile, in eastern Saudi Arabia, massive logistical movements on the road west from the Gulf have suggested to some observers that the coalition armies are preparing a flanking move into Iraq. Analysts do not, however, rule out the possibility that the movements might be a feint, designed to test the Iraqi's reactions and judge their response times.

Despite having dispatched more than 10,000 air sorties during the first week of the war, officials acknowledge that coalition attacks have still not destroyed priority targets with the exception of the Iraqi president's chemical and nuclear production facilities, according to Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf III, US field commander in the Gulf.

The Iraqi leadership's command and control of its forces has been weakened but not entirely broken, US military spokesmen say.

``There are workarounds'' the Iraqis can use to substitute for damaged systems, US Gen. Thomas Kelly explained on Tuesday, and Saddam is still communicating orders to his troops.

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Air raids have still not taken out all of Iraq's Scud missile launchers, which continue to fire at Israel and Saudi Arabia. And the Iraqi Air Force is believed to be largely intact despite early reports that most of its planes had been destroyed on the ground.

Iraqi pilots have been avoiding engagements with coalition fighter jets and flying their craft north to safety, US flyers have reported. Although coalition bombers have cratered most Iraqi airfields, those runways can sometimes be repaired in as little as 24 hours.

``They are out trying to repair a lot of things, as you would expect,'' General Kelly says. ``They have a million men under arms and they have capability.''

What the survivors of Iraq's 700-plane Air Force might be capable of is unclear.

``There is a lot of speculation going on right now in classified circles about what his [Saddam's] game plan might be, if he has one,'' says Lt. Col. Randall Bigum, commander of a squadron of US F-15C's. ``Every one of those speculations includes a massive use of his air power in support of some counteroffensive.''

Colonel Bigum was confident, however, that Iraqi planes would be no match for their coalition opponents.

``I don't know of any engagement that has occurred in which the F-15C's have not come out with kills on them,'' he says. ``He [Saddam] has been unsuccessful any time he has chosen to engage.''

Cloudy weather, which has impeded some missions from reaching their targets, has also assisted Iraqi efforts to recover from the air attacks.

``Now they're able to reposition, take advantage of this time to gather their thoughts and their assets, redeploy or whatever,'' said US pilot Maj. Tim Rush as he sat at his air base in central Saudi Arabia under a low sky.

``The weather is the only thing that has been on Saddam Hussein's side,'' British Air Vice Marshal Bill Wratten told reporters earlier this week.

On the ground, troops all along the front have been maneuvering into new positions in recent days, with a number of major US units moving north toward Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq and Kuwait.

Soldiers in the front line, some of them within hearing distance of coalition air strikes against Iraqi troop concentrations, are voicing less of their earlier gung-ho over-optimism now that the prospect of combat is growing closer.

``I expect they [the Iraqi troops] will probably fight very hard,'' predicts Lt. Col. Bill Reese, commander of the US 1st Armored Division's cavalry squadron. ``I expect that we'll have to destroy the enemy, his tank platoons, all his armored units, one by one by one.''

The rain that has hampered air strikes further north is also turning parts of the Saudi desert into waterlogged mud. Crowded with tent camps, armored divisions, and supply dumps, reverberating night and day to the thump of tanks and artillery units calibrating their guns, and sheathed in a bright green coat of young grass coaxed up by the rain, the border area today is a world away from the empty furnace that US troops first found on their arrival here last August.

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