WASHINGTON — President Bush's aides did not forcefully present him with dissenting views from CIA and State and Defense Department officials who warned that U.S.-led forces could face stiff resistance in Iraq, according to three senior administration officials.
Bush embraced the predictions of some top administration hawks, beginning with Vice President Dick Cheney, who predicted in the weeks before the war with Iraq that Saddam Hussein's regime was brittle and that Iraqis would joyously greet coalition troops as liberators, the officials said.
The dissenting views "were not fully or energetically communicated to the president," said one top official, who like the others requested anonymity. "As a result, almost every assumption the plan's based on looks to be wrong."
Instead, Bush embraced the views of Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other hawks, who have long advocated using force to overthrow Saddam, the official said.
In varying degrees, those views assumed that many Iraqi forces, including part of the elite Republican Guard, would surrender or at least not fight, that Iraqi civilians would revolt and assist U.S. and British forces, and that the entire conflict might be over in a matter of weeks.
Top political and military leaders insist that the war to oust Saddam and neutralize his weapons of mass destruction is on course. Army and Marine units are within 50 miles of Baghdad, troops pour into Iraq, and increasing swaths of Iraqi territory have been taken from the regime's control.
But debate over the war's course roiled Washington on Friday. Confronted with questions, administration officials insisted that they had never promised an easy conflict and accused the news media of making snap judgments 10 days into the war.
Rumsfeld said it was "premature" to ask whether the administration miscalculated the Iraqis' desire to rise up against Saddam.
But some senior U.S. officials now acknowledge that they might have underestimated the threat from Iraqi paramilitary units, who have engaged in guerrilla warfare against U.S. and British forces and threatened or executed Iraqis trying to surrender.
While the administration did not underestimate Iraqi resistance, "I think we probably did underestimate the willingness of this regime to commit war crimes," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.
Another senior official said planners expected tough fighting from the irregulars, called the fedayeen, and Republican Guard units, but only "in the red box outside of Baghdad."
The surprise has been that the units have been spread throughout the south, preventing anti-Saddam revolts among the populace and regular army units, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"One could say maybe we should have thought of that," he said.
The president has been careful never to describe the war as easy or cost-free.
"A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict," Bush said in a March 19 speech to the nation, shortly after the first cruise missiles struck Baghdad.
But some of those predictions came from Bush's own White House.
In a televised interview three days before the Bush speech, Cheney said, "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."
A Cheney aide said the comments were made in the context of a question about whether troops would be greeted as conquerors rather than liberators. It is "too early to make a judgment" on his prediction, the aide said.
While conceding that there could be a battle in Baghdad, the vice president said: "My guess is even significant elements of the Republican Guard are likely as well to avoid conflict with the U.S. forces and are likely to step aside."
So far, Republican Guard units have not surrendered.
Cheney, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said his assessment was based in part on meetings with Iraqi exiles, many of whom have long predicted a quick collapse of Saddam's regime after an invasion.
The exiles, led by Ahmed Chalabi, and some U.S. officials proposed that the job be done by a far smaller force than what is now in Iraq. The force would have relied heavily on small bands of U.S. Special Forces linked with U.S. airpower and opponents of the regime inside Iraq.
Richard Perle, an influential former Pentagon official who is close to Rumsfeld, reportedly gave a briefing to Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs 10 days ago in which he predicted that the war would last no longer than three weeks. "And there is a good chance that it will be less than that," he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies insist that they warned policymakers and war planners about the risks of Iraqi unconventional warfare.
A Feb. 3 CIA report predicted that Iraqi irregulars might employ hit-and-run tactics and dress in civilian garb, a U.S. official said. It suggested that militias could pose the greatest threat to coalition forces, said the official, who requested anonymity.
Analysts at the CIA and the departments of Defense and State were far more skeptical that Saddam's regime would fold quickly, that Iraqis would greet invading troops as liberators and that post-Saddam Iraq will become a democratic model for the Middle East, the senior officials said.
Those who favored a war to overthrow Saddam for the most part stood by their positions this week.
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The hoped-for anti-Saddam revolts in southern Iraq have failed to materialize because of fear of the regime and distrust of the United States, which called for an uprising in 1991 but stood by as Baghdad slaughtered its opponents, they said.
The United States will still be greeted as liberators "after the witch is dead," the first senior official said.
Perhaps no one was more publicly optimistic than former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman, who predicted in a February 2002 column that overthrowing Saddam would be "a cakewalk."
Adelman said the word was "too casual" but that "the thesis was right." The war will be over in less than the six weeks the 1991 Persian Gulf War took, he predicted.
Adelman's article was in response to one by Brookings Institution scholars Philip H. Gordon and Michael O'Hanlon, who warned "U.S. casualties could number in the thousands."
O'Hanlon said he stood by his analysis. "We were regrettably accurate," he said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report.)