KUWAIT—The American war plan for Iraq is designed to be so devastatingly swift and fierce that Iraqi troops will have no chance to react, will surrender en masse and, hopefully, will turn against Saddam Hussein.
In the first hours of conflict, British and U.S. Marine forces are expected to seize the southern city of Basra, 29 miles from the Kuwaiti border. From there, planners hope TV images of jubilant "liberated" Iraqis will shatter the morale of Iraqi soldiers elsewhere.
Meanwhile, some 150,000 U.S. and British troops would secure oil fields and weapons of mass destruction, capture Saddam's hometown of Tikrit and then take Baghdad after a dash through muddy Mesopotamia or the Iraqi desert to the west.
U.S. commanders describe the strategy as "shock and awe," a modern blitzkrieg; they decline to give details for publication, citing operational security.
But no classified information is needed to sketch the broad outlines of the campaign or the military objectives that must be met if the campaign is to succeed. Those objectives include:
_ Capturing Basra in the south and Tikrit in northern Iraq. Both have special psychological significance to Iraqi rulers and their opponents, analysts believe.
_ Securing oil fields in southern and northern Iraq. They are the source of Iraq's wealth and must be protected, both from sabotage by Iraqi troops and from seizures by other Saddam opponents. U.S. planners hope the money they generate in a post-Saddam world would help pay for rebuilding Iraq.
_ Controlling the port of Um Qasr, the gateway for most of Iraq's food imports and possible landing site for follow-on U.S. occupation troops.
_ Taking Baghdad. Unless Saddam surrenders or is killed or forced out by rivals within his government, American troops will have to capture Baghdad. It will be the first time since World War II that U.S. combat forces will have entered so large an enemy capital.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led the 24th Infantry Division in the 1991 Gulf War, estimates that a conflict would last three weeks and cause "moderate" U.S. casualties. "I fully expect we'll have to kill 15,000 Iraqi soldiers before it's over," he said in an interview.
The war is already under way in the skies and on the ground. U.S. and British warplanes months ago began stepping up their attacks on Iraqi air defenses and communications as part of their patrols of United Nations "no fly zones" over northern and southern Iraq.
Less visibly, American and other special forces and intelligence officers have been carrying out clandestine operations deep inside Iraq, surveying roads, bridges and airfields; hunting for hidden Scud missiles and chemical and biological weapons; making contact with opposition groups and dissident Iraqis; and tracking Iraqi leaders.
As in the first Gulf War, stealth warplane and cruise missile attacks would start the decisive phase of the conflict, targeting command bunkers, Saddam's presidential palaces, communications hubs and anti-aircraft batteries.
But installations such as power grids, bridges and oil refineries may not be as heavily hit as they were during the 1991 war, both to ease Iraq's post-war reconstruction and to devote more bombs to pinning down and weakening elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units—Saddam's most effective and loyal troops—and keeping them from retreating to Baghdad for a final stand.
The ground war would likely begin "within hours of the first air bombs to intensify the shock," said James Dunnigan, the author of several books on military strategy and history.
If Turkey refuses to grant permission to use its territory, the main ground attacks all would have to be launched from Kuwait, where some 110,000 U.S. Army, Marine and 40,000 British and Australian troops with 550 main battle tanks and thousands of other armored vehicles have been preparing for war.
The first obstacle to be passed is a 20-foot ditch dug along the Iraqi side of the 150-mile Kuwait-Iraq border. Private contractors already have cut several holes in the electrified fence on Kuwait's side and moved up bridging equipment, according to U.N. peacekeepers there.
British troops and Marines would first make a dash for Basra, 29 miles from Kuwait. The city is populated by Shiite Muslims who revolted in 1991 but were brutally crushed by Saddam's largely Sunni regime.
Their mission reflects the Britons' "short logistics tail" or lack of mobility because of limited supplies, said Dunnigan.
The British and Marines are likely to encounter a 1,500-man Iraqi army unit reported to be near the north-south highway that runs from Kuwait to Basra. They likely would be decimated in what analysts say would be a message to other Iraqi soldiers to surrender or die.
If the assault on Basra went well, planners hope that Shiite crowds would greet British and American forces as liberators and that commercial news crews accompanying the military, or arriving shortly after, would capture the joyous crowds on broadcasts that are likely to be viewed in Baghdad and elsewhere. It isn't clear, however, how Iraqis could watch television if the country's electrical grid were knocked out early, as some analysts expect.
Another early target would be Tikrit, Saddam's hometown and power base, though such an attack would be complicated by a Turkish refusal to allow U.S. forces to be based there. The 4th Infantry's tanks are on ships off the Turkish coast and most of its troops are still at Ft. Hood, Texas, waiting to be flown either to Turkey or to Kuwait.
Capturing Tikrit would be a huge psychological blow to Saddam's regime. Unlike Basra, "we have no friends there, but once it falls, Saddam and many of his key people have lost their hometown," said Dunnigan.
Seizing Tikrit also could be critical to capturing Saddam. He is reported to have a "super bunker" in the area, and the city has been heavily fortified in recent days.
If, as some U.S. officials now expect, the Turkish parliament reversed itself and let American forces attack from Turkish territory, the Army's 4th Infantry Division would follow the fast-moving 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment toward Tikrit and Iraq's northern oil fields from the north.
One of their missions would be to seize the oil fields near Kirkuk, which are estimated to hold up to 20 percent of the world's reserves, and Mosul, both north of Baghdad, before Saddam's troops sabotage them or they are seized by Kurdish and Turkoman rebels or Turkish troops.
Without Turkish bases, U.S. helicopter or paratroop assaults might be required to secure the northern oil fields and seize airfields that could be used to bring in additional U.S. troops, armor and artillery.
A smaller American force is expected to head for the small valley controlled by a radical Islamic group called Ansar al Islam, which U.S. officials say is allied with Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terrorist group. U.S. planners want to destroy Ansar before its members could leave their redoubt to mount terrorist attacks on invading American troops—possibly using crude chemical weapons.
In the south, U.S. Marines and Army mechanized units have been assigned to quickly seize the Rumailah and Majnoon oil fields west and north of Basra.
Other military strikes would take place simultaneously throughout the country. Army Rangers and other special operations troops would hunt for Scud missiles and chemical and biological weapons stockpiles in western Iraq, from where Saddam launched missiles at Israel in 1991, McCaffrey said.
"Moving light forces by helicopter and heavier transports, especially C-130 cargo planes, you can be on the ground anywhere in Iraq within hours," said Dunnigan.
Marine amphibious units aboard ships in the Persian Gulf might also secure the port of Um Qasr, the gateway for 60 percent of Iraq's food imports, although it would be just as easy to get there by land.
There are three regular Iraqi army divisions near the southern cities of Al Nasiriyah, Al Amarah, and Al Samawa, which would have to be engaged or bypassed as U.S. forces drove toward Baghdad, where they would face six Republican Guard divisions based around the capital and one Special Republican Guard Brigade within the city.
U.S. troops have at least two paths to Baghdad; a shorter but muddy route up the Mesopotamia region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a longer desert route along the west bank of the Euphrates.
"The U.S. Marines, with . . . a lot of amphibious equipment, will use that stuff to go up the Tigris and Euphrates toward Baghdad," Dunnigan predicted. But the Army is likely to stay largely in the desert to the west because its 70-ton Abrams main battle tanks would not fare well in Mesopotamia's mud, he said.
"Tanks can move up to up to 200 kilometers (124 miles) a day. That means Baghdad is at least three days from Kuwait if there is no opposition," Dunnigan wrote in a recent analysis of the U.S. war strategies. They are likely to stay in open terrain and avoid highways that could be easily blocked.
On either route, U.S. ground units would need to cross the Euphrates and probably the Tigris to the east, since Baghdad lies astride the Tigris. The region between the rivers, Mesopotamia, is criss-crossed by thousands of irrigation canals and dotted with marshy areas.
There are large bridges over the Euphrates at Al Nasiriyah and Al Samawa if the Iraqis do not destroy them. Or U.S. ground forces could travel on the desert west of the Euphrates all the way to Karbala and cross there.
Once in Baghdad, the U.S. forces would begin their first assault on a large urban area since the Vietnam War, when Marines spent six weeks in 1968 recapturing the city of Hue from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. By the end of that campaign, Hue lay in ruins.
Air Force and Navy warplanes would likely bomb any Iraqi troops outside Baghdad who tried to move toward the city, analysts said, preventing them from melting into the civilian population and taking shelter in mosques, hospitals and other civilian areas.
Baghdad's civilians would be the target of an intensive information campaign by broadcast and by leaflet drops, urging them to flee the city for safety outside. The U.S. plans to establish safe-conduct corridors out of Baghdad—corridors that will lead through security checkpoints to ensure that all are disarmed and that no soldiers are hiding among the civilians. Their ultimate destination would be nearby refugee camps.
The military probably wouldn't wait until the city was emptied, however. One U.S. military commander has publicly said that American forces will drive into the heart of Baghdad along several corridors in a quick and violent attack.
But the going will be slower than the earlier combat, analysts predict, and some American commanders expect casualties to rise sharply once the U.S. troops lose the advantage of superior airpower and tanks that kill the enemy at distances of up to three miles.
Even so, military commanders think they can conquer Iraq and Baghdad in three weeks.
As the fighting diminishes, American troops could be forced into the bizarre position of protecting Saddam's surviving government officials from lynch mobs and perhaps even find themselves working alongside Iraqi soldiers or police who switched sides.
"Someone is going to have to run the drivers' licenses office, to help find the chemical warheads and patrol the streets," said one Western diplomat in the Gulf region.
(Knight Ridder correspondents Andrea Gerlin, Mark McDonald and Joseph L. Galloway contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): usiraq+groundwar