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THE THRUST AND PARRY OF WAR

Put yourself in Saddam Hussein’s boots. What are his options now' There was a global sigh of relief when George W. Bush went to the United Nations last Thursday and said he would seek a security council resolution before attacking Iraq: all his allies had feared that he would do it unilaterally. But what he wants is a security council resolution making so many demands that Hussein is almost bound to reject it, and they all know it.

The Bush administration has not abandoned the goal of “regime change” in Iraq; the other big powers have just decided that a veneer of legality must be laid over what the United States of America was going to do anyway, to minimize the damage that Bush’s actions would do to the fragile edifice of international law. The following day, however, Bush stated the reality plainly: “We’re talking days and weeks, not months and years. I am highly doubtful that [Hussein] will meet our demands.”

A US attack is unlikely before the congressional elections in November, and Bush would not want to plunge the US back into recession with a December attack that sends oil prices soaring and kills the great pre-Christmas retail binge. The money is still on a January war that ends before it gets too hot in April, like Bush the Elder’s Desert Storm offensive 12 years ago.

Limited options

So what does Hussein do now' He has been told repeatedly by the Bush administration that the US wants to overthrow him — in reality, to kill him — no matter what he does, so he has little incentive to behave cautiously. He also has a well-established reputation for being a strategic gambler of near-lunatic boldness: consider the attack on Iran in 1980, or the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. We should therefore expect the unexpected.

The orthodox strategy for Iraq, given US air superiority, would be to leave only poorly trained conscripts on the frontiers and pull the better troops back into the built-up areas. There they will be in the right place to suppress any revolts and if US forces plunge into the cities after them the street-fighting would cause huge Iraqi civilian casualties (good for anti-US propaganda), and perhaps heavy American casualties too.

That was Hussein’s strategy in 1991, and it saved him then: US forces stopped once Kuwait was liberated. But Bush I had Arab coalition partners to keep happy, a plan for comprehensive west Asian peace, and a keen awareness that the US public would not tolerate many American casualties. Bush II has no Arab allies willing to contribute troops, no peace plan, and a clear belief that the US armed forces have invented a way to win wars without significant American casualties.

New frontiers

Hussein can play the “cities” strategy and hope that mounting US casualties or uprisings in the wider Arab world will end the war before US forces find his bunker, but he could easily be dead before that happens. But the current political situation in the Arab world creates opportunities he did not have in 1991, when most Arab leaders were furious with him for seizing Kuwait.

Hussein almost certainly still has a few Scud-B missiles hidden away. They are 60-year-old technology and he probably has no “weapons of mass destruction” to put on them, but they’ll reach Israel if he fires them from the westernmost part of Iraq, bordering Jordan. They would do little damage, but Israel would retaliate massively — and then the whole strategic context changes. It would no longer be just Saddam versus the US then, but a full-blown regional crisis that offered Hussein all sorts of possibilities.

If Hussein can get the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to attack Iraq before the US offensive starts, then no Arab government could let US forces use its territory to join in the attack. Sharon, who has his own strategic goals, is just itching for a pretext to hit Iraq and all Hussein needs to justify launching his Scuds is enough Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in one day. Watch out for an October or November surprise.

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