Iraq's chances in a war with America are almost a joke

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 December, 2002, 12:00am

THE MORE American military hardware that pours into the Gulf, the more farcical an impending war against Saddam Hussein seems. The Iraqi army was out-gunned by the allies a decade ago and sanctions have since severely limited its size and ability to modernise.

The result is as close to a joke as modern warfare will permit, defence experts say. The last war took six weeks and the next could be over in a month or less.

The allied operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo provide a foretaste of what Mr Hussein can expect - an intense air operation using sophisticated smart bombs and missile technology followed by a ground war spearheaded by special forces.

The United States-led coalition would need 500,000 troops aiming for a quick campaign with a minimum of bloodshed.

The news editor of the respected Jane's Defence Weekly, Ian Kemp, said latest estimates put Iraq's armed forces at 425,000, of which 375,000 were in the army. A further 650,000 reservists could probably be called up.

He said analysts suggested the army's best unit, the Republican Guard, was only half combat ready - a low level of readiness for an impending conflict.

'To describe the Republican Guard as the elite is somewhat misleading,' Mr Kemp said. 'It's better to describe them as the best of a bad lot. These people are not elite by Western standards.'

Morale among commanders is low. They would rather avoid a war than fight one they know they have no chance of winning.

'They certainly didn't put up a fight in 1991, but then they were absolutely overwhelmed by the intensity of the air and ground wars,' Mr Kemp said. 'Whether they would be prepared to fight knowing that they're going to be defeated is an open question.'

A military coup seemed unlikely, given Mr Hussein's stranglehold on society through a network of about 10,000 confidantes. A general who suggested such an idea would have to be highly courageous and the chances of being executed the evening he proposed the idea to colleagues was extremely high, Mr Kemp said. Importantly, there were also question marks over the state of the nation's military equipment. Since the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the tank fleet had not been modernised and was half the strength. The same applied to guns and communications and radar equipment.

The United Nations Security Council is examining the dossier of weapons Iraq handed over last week as part of the council's latest resolution. While running to 12,000 pages, comments reiterated by Iraqi officials reveal it does not address the biggest unknown of all - Iraq's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear arms.

Mr Hussein ordered his army to use chemical weapons during the 1980-88 war with Iran and against Kurds. Mysterious illnesses suffered by allied veterans of the Gulf War point to the use of biological warfare.

Experts know that since the 1960s, Baghdad has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons. In 1981, Israeli planes destroyed Iraq's Osiraq nuclear reactor shortly before it was due to start up.

Two weeks of UN weapons inspections have yet to find evidence of such programmes still operating, but if US and British officials are to be believed, weapons could be hidden and ready for use. The same applies to Russian-made Scud missiles, which were fired at US and Israeli targets during the Gulf War. How many Iraq still has, whether it has acquired more and where they might be is unclear.

Mr Kemp believed Iraqi strategists would have studied the lessons of the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict in 1999 for clues of what to expect.

'They would probably have the US Department of Defence 'after action' reports and they'll be looking at those carefully,' he said. 'These would give a good indication of what they could implement in deception measures.'

But these were only stalling tactics. 'At the end of the day it might prolong them by a few days, but it's not going to prevent their destruction,' Mr Kemp predicted.