US big guns silent on 'regime change'
The politicians are keen to see the back of Saddam Hussein, but the military is taking a more detached and realistic view, writes Julian Borger
Wednesday February 13, 2002
There is no mistaking the signs, because they are a mile high and neon-lit. The US administration has decided to get rid of Saddam Hussein once and for all. It is being called "regime change" and the Bush team is united behind the policy.
To demonstrate how unified it is, Colin Powell has been sent out to deliver the message to a succession of congressional committees. Yesterday, the secretary of state, viewed hitherto as the administration's pet dove, explained to the Senate budget committee why not all members of the "axis of evil" are equal, when it comes to part two of the war against terrorism.
"With respect to Iran and with respect to North Korea, there is no plan to start a war with these nations," he said. "With respect to Iraq, it has long been, for several years now, a policy of the United States government that regime change would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people ... And we are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about."
By all accounts, the Bush war cabinet, including the president, Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defence, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, agreed late in January that toppling Saddam was the nation's next major military task.
However, there appears to be no plan so far for doing the much-discussed and long-postponed deed. The Iraqi regime will be given an ultimatum in May over accepting UN inspectors back, with "unfettered" rights to search every inch of the country without warning.
The presumption in Washington is that the Iraqi leader will either refuse outright, or appear to accept and then resume the policy of "cheat and retreat", playing hide-and-seek with the inspection teams until the US loses patience with the game.
In either scenario, the military planners have been told that they have to be ready to fight by the autumn. They have also been told to provide a workable blueprint by the time Dick Cheney leaves on a nine-country tour, taking in most of Iraq's neighbours, in mid-March.
In theory, there should be a dozen such plans on the president's desk by now. Toppling Saddam has long been on the minds of many of the administration's strategic thinkers in the Pentagon and the national security council. However, if the administration is to believed, no such document exists.
The reason is that killing the Butcher of Baghdad is not going to be easy. Not even the ultra-hawks believe the Iraqi opposition will be of much help. It is not a feasible force in the mould of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance.
Most military analysts believe that capturing Baghdad, and that is almost certainly what it will take to finish the job, will require as many as 100,000 US troops.
In the run-up to the assault, the US divisions will have to be massed in the region, giving the Iraqi military ample warning of what is afoot, even if thousands of American troops are smuggled in under cover of military exercises.
As in the Gulf war, such troop concentrations will be vulnerable to attack by Scud missiles, possibly tipped with chemical or biological weapons. Israel will also lie within range of such retaliation.
Eleven years ago Saddam decided not to use the most devastating arms in his arsenal. But only Kuwait and the lives of his soldiers were at stake on that occasion. This time, the dictator's life will be on the line. His chemical and biological weapons will be his strongest defence, and if he can, he is likely to use them.
US bombers can attempt to obliterate every Scud launcher in the country, but there are other means of delivery. The stakes will be very high, and the margin for error nil, which is why there is such an audible gap between the bellicosity of America's politicians and the cautious silence of its generals.