Military Bids to Postpone Iraq Invasion
Joint Chiefs See Progress In Swaying Bush, Pentagon

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 24, 2002; Page A01

The uniformed leaders of the U.S. military believe they have persuaded the Pentagon's civilian leadership to put off an invasion of Iraq until next year at the earliest and perhaps not to do it at all, according to senior Pentagon officials.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have waged a determined behind-the-scenes campaign to persuade the Bush administration to reconsider an aggressive posture toward Iraq in which war was regarded as all but inevitable. This included a secret briefing at the White House earlier this month for President Bush by Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as head of the Central Command would oversee any U.S. military campaign against Iraq.

During the meeting, Franks told the president that invading Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein would require at least 200,000 troops, far more than some other military experts have calculated. This was in line with views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have repeatedly emphasized the lengthy buildup that would be required, concerns about Hussein's possible use of biological and chemical weapons and the possible casualties, officials said.

The Bush administration still appears dedicated to the goal of removing the Iraqi leader from power, but partly in response to the military's advice, it is focusing more on undermining him through covert intelligence operations, two officials added. "There are many ways in which that [regime change] could come about, only one of which is a military campaign in Iraq," one official familiar with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's thinking said yesterday.

Any final decision would be the president's. Appearing in Berlin yesterday, Bush offered more tough rhetoric about Iraq and other countries he has labeled part of an "axis of evil." But at a news conference in Berlin, he also said that he had told German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder: "I have no war plans on my desk, which is the truth, and that we've got to use all means at our disposal to deal with Saddam Hussein." [Details, Page A26.]

In addition to skepticism from within his own military, Bush faces concern in Europe about the wisdom of expanding the war to Iraq. Schroeder embraced the effort to pressure Hussein to accept weapons inspectors but would not be drawn into discussion of a military attack.

The debate inside the Pentagon is only part of a larger discussion of Iraq that also involves the White House, the State Department and the CIA, among others. Those deliberations go well beyond discussing the merits of mounting a military operation and lately have focused on the role of international diplomacy and what use to make of unwieldy Iraqi opposition groups abroad.

The disclosure of the efforts by the uniformed leadership to slow the drive toward war suggests that a military confrontation with Iraq may be further away than has been suggested by many administration officials. Some of the chiefs' concerns were first reported in yesterday's editions of USA Today.

However, the situation is still fluid, and Pentagon insiders say intense pressure is being brought by advocates of military action within the administration to get the chiefs on their side.

In a series of meetings this spring, the six members of the Joint Chiefs -- the chairman, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers; the vice chairman, Marine Gen. Peter Pace; and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps -- hammered out a position that emphasizes the difficulties of any Iraq campaign while also quietly questioning the wisdom of a military confrontation with Hussein.

"I think all the chiefs stood shoulder-to-shoulder on this," said one officer tracking the debate, which has been intense at times. In one of the most emphatic summaries of the direction of the debate, one top general said the "Iraq hysteria" he detected last winter in some senior Bush administration officials has been diffused.

But others familiar with the discussions held by the Joint Chiefs in the secure Pentagon facility known as "the Tank" say that it is premature for the uniformed military to declare victory. They note that Rumsfeld has so far mostly stayed out of the debate, leaving that to Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and Douglas J. Feith, the Pentagon's top policy official, who are seen inside the Pentagon as the Defense Department's leading hawks on Iraq.

In their Tank sessions, the chiefs focused on two specific concerns about the conduct of any offensive. One was that Hussein, if faced with losing power and likely being killed, would no longer feel the constraints that during the Persian Gulf War apparently kept him from using his stores of chemical and biological weapons. The other was the danger of becoming bogged down in bloody block-by-block urban warfare in Baghdad that could kill thousands of U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians.

Franks, who attended a Tank session before seeing the president, has expressed similar concerns, said one officer. "Tommy's issue is, a lot of things have to be in place, and these things are not all military things," he recounted.

In addition to those tactical concerns, some of the chiefs also expressed misgivings about the wisdom of dislodging an aging, weakened Hussein who, by some accounts, has behaved better than usual in recent months. Their worry is that there is no evidence that there is a clear successor who is any better, and that there are significant risks that Iraq may wind up with a more hostile, activist regime.

As the discussions of Iraq policy were culminating earlier this month, Franks briefed the Joint Chiefs and then the president on the outline of the plan he would use if ordered to attack. His plan, which was the only one presented, called for a substantial combat force that was close to half the 541,000 troops deployed for the 1991 Gulf War, which the military refers to as Operation Desert Storm. Some at the Pentagon promptly labeled the Franks plan Desert Storm Lite.

When asked at a news conference in Tampa earlier this week about what military force be needed to invade Iraq, Franks answered, "That's a great question and one for which I don't have an answer because my boss has not yet asked me to put together a plan to do that."

Franks's narrow response relied on the U.S. military definition of "plan" as a detailed, step-by-step blueprint for military operations. What Franks discussed with the Joint Chiefs and the president was a simpler outline for an attack that the military terms a "concept of operations."

By emphasizing the large force that he believes would be needed, Franks's briefings also seemed to rule out an alternate plan that some civilians in the Bush administration had advocated. Dubbed "the Downing plan," for retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, who suggested it four years ago, this approach calls for conquering Iraq with combination of airstrikes and Special Operations attacks in coordination with indigenous fighters.

That option, which would have required a fraction of the U.S. troops Franks indicated he would need, was not presented as a briefing either to the Joint Chiefs or to the president, officials said. Downing serves as the White House's coordinator for counterterrorism efforts.

This spring, "the civilian leadership thought they could do this à la Afghanistan, with Special Forces," said a senior officer. "I think they've been dissuaded of that."

The point of the Franks briefings, this general said, was that, "We don't need as much as Desert Storm, but we need a large competent ground force, in order to shape the other force. What forces the other guy to mass is the presence of another ground force. Then you can deal with that force with fires and air power." In this view, those who say the model of the Afghan war can be transferred to Iraq fail to take into account that the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan had thousands of troops ready to fight, some of them heavily armed, whereas there is no equivalent indigenous force in Iraq.

Despite the confidence expressed by some officers that an attack on Iraq has been postponed and may never occur, some on the other side of the argument warn that it is far from concluded. There are other top officers in the U.S. military who disagree with the chiefs' assessment. Their worries, said one general, "smack to me of risk aversion." He added: "The fact is they [the Iraqi armed forces] are one-third the size they used to be. Their air force isn't there."

Advocates of an Iraqi invasion note that Bush has not backed away from his tough State of the Union rhetoric. "They [the military leaders] have been able to defer it, so they've won this round of the bureaucratic battle," said one Republican foreign policy expert who is hawkish on Iraq. But, he continued, "I don't believe you're going to see the president sit back and say, 'Sure, containment's the way to go, keeping him in the box is working.' "

© 2002 The Washington Post Company