KUWAIT CITY—Iraq's military is much weaker than it was when U.S. troops trounced it in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. It's half its former size, with old weapons and ill-trained soldiers demoralized by the memory of their ignominious defeat, the reality of their present plight and the prospect of facing an American-led force that's even better than it was 12 years ago.
The Iraqi force is so debilitated that some analysts think any match-up between U.S. and Iraqi troops will be "nearly bloodless" for the Americans. "All the signs are there," said military affairs writer James Dunnigan.
Even chemical and biological weapons, while threatening serious American casualties, could not stave off defeat for Iraqi. Such weapons "seem most likely to be so limited in technology and operational lethality that they do not constrain U.S. freedom of action," according to a report last summer by two analysts at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which does national-security studies.
Only in the streets of Baghdad might U.S. troops face serious opposition. Five Special Republican Guard brigades, totaling up to 15,000 troops and trained in urban warfare, have been based there since their creation in 1995 to defend Saddam Hussein.
Outside the Republican Guards, the 23 divisions of the regular army are "virtually irrelevant (except for) three mechanized divisions that acquitted themselves well in the Gulf War," said William N. Arkin, an expert on the Iraqi military and a former American military intelligence analyst. Each division has 8,000 to 10,000 men.
U.S. military officials are preparing for an aerial blitzkrieg and an all-out ground assault, marshaling a ground, air and naval force expected to top 150,000 men. They sometimes put estimates of Saddam's military and security force strength as high as 700,000. But a look at the numbers of Iraq's armed forces shows that they're a shadow of their former selves after a decade of U.N. sanctions outlawing military imports and limiting the government's income.
From 1 million men after it invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, Iraq's military is down to about 429,000, according to the Military Balance reports issued annually by the Britain-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Saddam has deployed no new major weapons systems since 1991. Iraq's stocks of main battle tanks and airplanes are down 40 to 60 percent in number, and 40 to 50 percent of those probably can't be used in battle, according to last summer's Center for Strategic and International Studies report.
"Iraq's inability to recapitalize and modernize its forces means that much of its large order of battle is now obsolescent," senior CSIS analysts Anthony H. Cordesman and Arleigh A. Burke wrote.
U.N. sanctions have so limited the imports of military spare parts—and in turn reduced Iraqi armed-forces training—that Baghdad has been forced to import civilian trucks and divert them to its army, said Dunnigan, who has written two dozen books on military affairs.
Morale is in the dumps, he added, because most of the conscripts that make up two-thirds of the armed forces are Shiite Muslims or Kurds, ethnic groups long oppressed by Saddam's predominantly Sunni Muslim regime. All officers are Sunni.
Six Republican Guard divisions—three armored, one mechanized and two infantry—each with 12,000 to 15,000 mostly career soldiers, are far better equipped and trained. Four are stationed north and west of Baghdad, facing Kurdish rebels, and the rest are based to the south and east, facing Kuwait and Iran.
But they are unlikely to be able to assist the Special Republican Guard brigades assigned to defend the capital.
"The reality is that the units in the northern and southern theaters are not going to move. They are pinned down. So the Baghdad units are the only ones relevant to a U.S. action," Arkin said.
Having learned in 1991 that his forces cannot challenge U.S. air superiority, Saddam probably would order them to dig in inside cities, "forcing (U.S.) attacks . . . that will be translated into massive civilian casualties and dramatic photos in the Western and Islamic media," said a recent report by Stratfor, a Texas-based security analysis firm.
The U.S. Army recently bought a dozen Israeli-made D-5 kits for armoring bulldozers, apparently planning to adopt the Israeli military's tactic of plowing through city blocks rather than moving down dangerous streets, Dunnigan said.
Saddam's air force has shrunk from 515 main combat aircraft in 1989 to 311 now, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies reports. The CSIS report said junior pilots trained as few as 20 hours a year, compared with more than 200 for American pilots.
"If they can mobilize 100 sorties in case of war I would be surprised," Arkin said.
More threatening to U.S. forces are Iraq's anti-aircraft defenses, which the CSIS described as "one of the most dense defensive networks in the world."
Since 1991, Saddam's troops have smuggled in new Ukrainian-made radars, linked them with optical cable networks installed by Chinese companies and learned from Serb veterans of NATO's air war in Kosovo how to use regular TV antennas to spot American stealth jets, experts said.
Yet Iraq has never succeeded in bringing down a single U.S. or British fighter jet patrolling the "no-fly" zones in northern and southern Iraq, "amazing because of the law of averages—zip for about 1,000 times they have fired on our aircraft," Dunnigan said.
American forces are expected to target the optical cables at the start of any attack, and the CIA reportedly has obtained technical drawings of the Ukrainian radars that would allow U.S. aircraft to jam or fool them.
The Pentagon expects that Iraq may try to jam the satellite signals that guide "smart" bombs to their targets, but already has alternate plans. "For whatever counter they come up with, we have counter-counters," Dunnigan said.
Saddam's tiny navy has a number of shore-based Chinese Silkworm anti-ship missiles and sea mines, but couldn't damage any U.S. ships even when Iraqi troops controlled Kuwait's share of the Persian Gulf shores.
And while Iraq's artillery and FROG and Scud ballistic missiles can easily reach American military bases as well as air and seaports in Kuwait, their fire would amount to little more than harassment, the experts said.
Far more troublesome would be Saddam's chemical and biological weapons, which he didn't use against the American-led coalition forces that drove his men out of Kuwait but more probably would deploy against any effort to drive him out of power.
"An `existential' attack to topple Saddam . . . would most likely lead Iraq to employ his CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear)" arsenal against U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq or even Kuwait, the CSIS report said. Arkin warned that such an attack could mean a propaganda victory for Saddam and would be a terrible psychological blow for the Americans.
"I don't think it would have any military impact at all, but some people in the Arab world would see that as a victory for the Iraqis," Arkin said.
Based on assessments of Iraq's military strengths and weaknesses, U.S. analysts such as Arkin and Dunnigan think the broad outlines of the strategy for any American campaign should be clear:
_ In the first days of a war, U.S. commanders would send bombers and special forces units to knock out suspected weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems such as mobile and fixed Scud missile-launch facilities.
_ Later attacks would concentrate on anti-aircraft weapons and Republican Guard units to keep them from reinforcing Baghdad and Basra, a predominantly Shiite city barely a two-hour drive north of the Kuwaiti border.
_ The attacks would spare the regular army, which may be needed later to help maintain law and order in a post-Saddam era. "You don't want to kick the crap out of them so badly that the Iraqi people will hate you," Arkin said.
_ Psychological operations would urge regular army officers at least to stay out of the fighting and perhaps help to overthrow Saddam before American forces reach the outskirts of Baghdad.
U.S. intelligence officers, with help from Iraqi exiles and businessmen who travel abroad, already have been telephoning and e-mailing Iraqi military commanders to try to persuade them to surrender at the earliest possible moment, Dunnigan said.
Still, it might sound too easy.
"You can't be casual about it. They do have guns, and the U.S. is going to have to do whatever it does in a deliberate way," said Dunnigan.
"But the brain power is going to go into how to thwart the weapons of mass destruction and how to depose Saddam Hussein. So the defeat of the Iraqi military is almost a non-issue at this point," he added.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.