WASHINGTON—If Turkey does not decide to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq from its soil by week's end, the Bush administration will shift to an alternate war plan that calls for a smaller number of light forces reinforced by heavy air support to seize oil fields and refineries and stabilize the region, experts say.
The shift should delay the war by only a few days, some analysts believe. They consider an attack before late March or early April unlikely.
"The Bush administration is already moving to implement Plan B," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a research organization in Arlington, Va. "It will keep its options open as long as some near-term reconsideration by the Turkish parliament seems possible."
The administration is eager to use Turkey as a base for a military attack because doing so could shorten the war, cost less and reduce the number of American casualties. An attack from Turkey in the north also would be the fastest way to get American forces to the oil fields in northern Iraq and secure them in the early days of the war.
"There is no question that the Turkish approach would have been a preferable approach, but other approaches are available," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, the head of the U.S. European Command, said the military had been working for months on a plan to establish a northern front into Iraq from Turkey, which would have been his preference. He called it "not absolutely critical but an important piece" so Saddam Hussein would have had to protect himself from more than one side.
If the Turks' "no" is final, "it is not a show stopper," Jones said.
Turkey's Parliament voted Saturday against making the country's bases available to U.S. troops. Turkish officials deliberated Monday whether parliament should vote again.
Because of the current stalemate, two dozen ships have been waiting in the eastern Mediterranean to unload military equipment and supplies. An additional dozen are crossing the Atlantic.
With Turkey's cooperation, the Pentagon planned to use 62,000 U.S. troops, principally from the Army's 4th Infantry Division, with American air support from Turkish bases, to quell strife between Kurdish factions or between
Kurds and Turks, seize oil wells and refineries around Mosul and Kirkuk and capture Iraqi troops, as well as Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
Without Turkey's approval, the Pentagon could still orchestrate dual attacks, one from the north and one from Kuwait in the south, splitting Saddam Hussein's forces, analysts say.
But in the north the United States would rely on far fewer troops—by some estimates 5,000 to 20,000—and fewer tanks and other heavy armor.
The U.S. military would not comment on specifics of Plan B, but military analysts said light forces would be airlifted from ships or bases in the Persian Gulf to secure airstrips in northern Iraq currently under the control of the Kurdish militia. Workers have been seen widening the road leading from a Kurdish airstrip near the northern Iraq city of Sulaimaniyah in recent weeks.
More troops and equipment would then arrive in C-17 cargo jets that can land on even the most primitive airstrip.
Ships waiting to unload heavy equipment in the Mediterranean would be rerouted to Kuwait through the Suez Canal. Reinforcements from the 4th Infantry, the army's most sophisticated heavy armored division, would make their way from Kuwait to northern Iraq to help stabilize the post-Saddam political situation, said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.
Without access to Turkish bases, it would be much harder to supply advancing U.S. troops with fuel and ammunition. U.S. cargo jets ferrying more troops and equipment into northern Iraq also would be vulnerable to fighter attack or surface-to-air missiles. However, the U.S. cargo jets are equipped with flares and other countermeasures and would be assisted by surveillance planes and escorted by fighters.
Analysts also worry that Saddam might destroy oil fields in northern Iraq or that the Kurds might seize the fields if the United States can't put enough troops in place quickly enough. Pike said the lighter forces might actually be able to do the job faster.
"Anybody who thinks the war won't start until the 4th mechanized division (4th Infantry Division) is up and running down in Kuwait may find the war starting without them," he said.
Another chief concern facing the Pentagon is that concentrating more forces in Kuwait could make them an even more tempting target for a biological or chemical strike. But, Thompson said, the Iraqis "lack the reconnaissance and targeting capabilities to reliably hit U.S. units."
Lighter forces still can "cope easily" with Saddam's Republican Guard if backed by "heavy and continuous air support" particularly from so-called airborne tank killers such as the A-10 Thunderbolt and the AH-64 Apache helicopter, he said. That kind of air power, Thompson said, would make up for reduced firepower on the ground.
"Clearly we are ready to do whatever the president calls upon us to do," said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the more help one has the better."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Daniel Rubin in Stuttgart, Germany, and Jonathan S. Landay in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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