WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the United States was in secret contact with elements of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's military who it hopes will step aside or surrender in the event of an American-led attack.
Rumsfeld's comments, at a Pentagon news conference broadcast into Iraq, marked the first official indication from the U.S. military that some Iraqi soldiers are cooperating in undermining Saddam.
"They are being communicated with privately at the present time," Rumsfeld said.
"They are being—will be—communicated with, in a more public way. And they will receive instructions so that they can behave in a way that will be seen and understood as being nonthreatening. And they will not be considered combatants, and they will be handled in a way that they are no longer part of the problem."
The disclosure, together with the testing of a terrifying new American bomb Tuesday at an Air Force installation in Florida, seemed aimed at fomenting fear—front and rear—in the Iraqi military.
The bomb, called a Massive Ordnance Air Burst, contained 21,000 pounds of explosives, making it the largest weapon in existence outside nuclear arsenals.
A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the intent of the psychological warfare campaign was to convince Iraqi soldiers that it might be safer to run into the arms of the Americans than to trust their own comrades or face U.S. weapons.
"If we're going to move up into Iraq, then troops that surrender will be taken care of," the official said. ". . . The first group that tries to resist will be obliterated, both as an example and because we need to move ahead. . . . We will devastate the military units that decide to fight."
Defense officials had said previously that special operations forces were already in Iraq trying to make contact with anti-Saddam elements among Shiite Muslims, Kurds and disaffected groups.
The Pentagon also had let it be known that its planes were dropping hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Iraq, especially in the southern no-fly zone, that say resistance would be futile.
Saddam's military is divided into segments—a "popular army" of some 280,000 to 350,000 soldiers organized into 17 divisions, plus an elite Republican Guard organized into seven divisions.
GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based public policy group that monitors declassified intelligence assessments of Iraqi strength, reports that the main function of the Republican Guard, besides protecting Baghdad, is to "protect the regime from the army."
The regular-army troops are the ones on the front lines, who will have the first choice of standing aside or giving up.
The United States and its allies, principally Britain and Australia, now have 225,000 troops—a combination of air, sea and land forces—in the potential combat zone, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The American military in recent days has stepped up preparations for an all-out attack by sending Air Force and Navy combat planes on hundreds of missions in the no-fly zones in the south and north of Iraq.
The U.S. military has been softening up the area under the provisions of a 9-year-old policy, adapted from U.N. resolutions, that permits the destruction of any facilities that could threaten overflights.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.