WASHINGTON—Coalition commander Gen. Tommy Franks won't begin his ground attack against the Republican Guard divisions on the outskirts of Baghdad until U.S. air power has whittled Saddam Hussein's frontline units down to less than half-strength. The trouble is that it may be hard to know when or whether that goal has been reached.
So far, Saddam has managed to preserve many of his best forces by moving, dispersing and sheltering them—and, some U.S. officials say, by using decoys to deplete American stocks of precision munitions. U.S. assessments of bomb damage and of the exact locations of enemy units can best be described as "conflicted."
A senior U.S. military officer said Friday that Air Force and Army aircraft have attacked half of all Republican Guard targets, but the assessments of the damage the bombs have done are "imprecise and often unclear." That means the coalition doesn't have a clear picture of how much the bombing has "degraded" the Republican Guard and other units, despite the upbeat public assessments and sensational video footage from Pentagon and Central Command representatives.
The same senior officer confirmed what some U.S. analysts have suspected. Iraq's strategy and tactics have been drawn directly from an old Soviet doctrine called "maskirovka"—a mix of measures designed to mislead the enemy about everything from the disposition of forces and their combat readiness to the commander's plans. That's not surprising: The Soviet Union was Iraq's military mentor for many years.
According to the 1978 Soviet Military Encyclopedia: "Strategic maskirovka is carried out at national and theater levels to mislead the enemy as to political and military capabilities, intentions and timing of actions."
Foreign intelligence sources that U.S. officials called largely reliable said the Iraqis have been deploying a "huge number of various kinds of target mockups and other decoys on the ground." In one U.S. air strike against targets at an Iraqi airfield, American pilots reported destroying all 20 Iraqi planes on the field. The intelligence sources, however, said the bomb damage assessment after the strike showed that the destroyed planes were all mockups.
The Iraqis also have been moving their radars and other air defense assets around Baghdad, and so far they haven't revealed their locations by turning on the radars or launching even one large surface-to-air missile, a trick U.S. intelligence officials said they appear to have learned from Yugoslavia, which learned it the hard way a few years ago. They also have been moving their air defense radars, the intelligence sources said.
U.S. intelligence sources said it appears that the Iraqis, lifting another page from the old Soviet playbook, also appear to have been transmitting phony radio and telephone messages to mislead coalition forces about the whereabouts and condition of Iraqi leaders and military units. Couriers, they suspect, may be carrying some of the real orders so spy satellites and planes can't intercept them.
They said the Iraqis also might have deliberately tricked the Americans and British into believing that key Republican Guard commanders were prepared to surrender.
Trained in counterintelligence by the Soviet KGB and the former East German Stasi, the Iraqis have fooled the West before. In one case, Saddam's agents penetrated a U.S.- and British-backed coup attempt against Saddam, then allowed it to proceed until all the plotters exposed themselves. The plotters were promptly executed, and the Iraqis announced the end of the $6 million enterprise in July 1996 by calling the CIA station in Amman, Jordan on the secret communications gear the CIA had provided to its agents, said a former U.S. intelligence officer who participated in the covert operation.
The second part of the Iraqi strategy appears to have been leading coalition forces to believe that they wouldn't encounter significant opposition until they got to Baghdad, meanwhile sending a few reliable officers and Baath Party enforcers to shore up the resistance in the southern part of the country. As a result, the Iraqis have tied down a significant number of American troops and slowed the march to Baghdad by fighting in Basra and An Nasiriyah and harassing Army and Marine supply lines and rear area bases.
Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington says: "The best Iraqi tactic is to use elements of the Republican Guard and larger elements of the more expendable regular Army to slow down the advance and inflict casualties, while keeping most Republican Guard forces intact for defensive battles."
So it still isn't clear whether the United States will get the Desert Storm-type decisive battle outside Baghdad that it wants, or whether American troops will have to win the war in the streets of a capital city with a population of 5 million people.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.