His golf clubs back in the bag, US President George W. Bush is no longer taking his swings at Saddam Hussein from reporter-infested fairways, where his sound bites carried little sting. The leader of the strongest nation on earth acted decidedly presidential when he convened a meeting of his top security advisers at his Crawford, Texas ranch on Wednesday, August 21.
Facing the press later in a button-down shirt with his business-suited defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, peering over his shoulder, Bush looked like he was ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work on confronting Iraq. His Crawford conclave – also attended by vice president Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency – had all the trappings of a war council. But it was an optical illusion. The group did not need to debate whether to go to war against Iraq, because – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been reporting for the past two months — a decision has been made and Bush is pressing ahead with plans for the offensive to topple Saddam despite a flurry of White House denials and domestic criticism.
The true significance of the ranch hoedown-before-the-showdown was that it was held in the public spotlight. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington report that Bush plans to hold similar war councils weekly as D-Day approaches. Some meetings will be made public, others classified. Bush will be talking to top US political leaders and military chiefs directly involved with preparations for the offensive and its implementation. Among those who can expect a presidential invitation are secretary of state Colin Powell, deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, General Tommy Franks – commander of the war against terror and the Iraq campaign – and other top army, air force, marines and navy officers.
It’s all part of Bush’s efforts to demonstrate that he is indeed the supreme commander of the armed forces of the United States and that he means to see the Iraqi campaign through to final victory.
Senior military sources in Washington told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the president is eager to face the Congressional elections in November as a pro-active commander-in-chief who dominates the strategic preparations for an offensive bearing his personal mark. He fully expects the Iraq venture to strongly influence America’s strategic standing in such flashpoint world regions as the Middle East, Arabia, the Gulf, Iran and Central Asia – from a military, political and economic standpoint. He will therefore lead the campaign from the front, along with his top team of advisers.
According to our sources, the conference at the presidential ranch in Crawford dealt with the following subjects:
It endorsed Bush’s decision to go ahead with the offensive against Iraq before the November elections. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported in Issue 67 on July 5, the president strongly favors the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks as launch date. But then, as in Crawford on Wednesday, he stressed that the timetable must be determined by the military consideration. If Franks and his team needed another two or three weeks of preparation time, they would get them.
Our military sources quote General Myers as announcing to the gathering that the US assault force would be revving at the starting gate in the last week of September or the first week of October. Our military experts cite any time between September 10 and October 10 – barring unforeseen circumstances, which could include a pre-emptive attack by Saddam, or a mega-terror strike by Iraqi agents. (A separate article in this issue updates Saddam latest steps)
Meanwhile, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report the bulk of the US assault force for Iraq as being in position.
The USS Lincoln is on its way from Okinawa to the Arabian Sea, where late next week it will join four other US aircraft carriers already on-station. With the Lincoln, the United States will have mustered more than 450 aircraft ready to pummel Iraq. Britain’s input of fighter-bombers will top up General Franks’s air armada to more than 500 craft.
Troop mobilization is complete and the US 10th, 101st, 82nd, 28th, 35th, 40th divisions and 49th armored divisions have been relocated from bases in Europe to the Gulf and Middle East – some, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported, deployed inside Iraq, mainly in the northern Kurdish regions; others around Iraqi borders – whether in Jordan in the east, or in Kuwait and Qatar in the south.
The poor showing of the Iraqi opposition front invited to the US capital earlier this month has not put the Bush administration off its plan to establish a provisional Iraqi government in northern Iraq prior to the main war offensive. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, this plan was aired in detail at the Crawford session. The provisional administration’s first task will be to invite the United States to send troops into Iraq, while calling on the Iraqi military not to resist the American force but turn their guns against the units loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The Bush team has still not come up with any dissident leader with sufficient command and authority to fill the post of provisional prime minister capable of swaying popular opinion and drawing the Iraq army into switching sides.
2. US Blitzkrieg
Contrary to the assumptions dominating United States, Middle East and Gulf media in recent days, George W. Bush and his war planners have not selected Baghdad for a major strike early on in their offensive. The reason is simple: Saddam Hussein and his immediate circle have not set foot in the Iraqi capital since last April; neither have his military and political chiefs been located there since May.
Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources add that Iraq is not seriously contemplating defending Baghdad either. The absent regime has left behind just a few units of the Mukhabarat – the Iraqi domestic secret service, some lesser government bureaucrats and ruling Baath party functionaries, some low- and middle-ranking military officers, volunteer militiamen and police. Iraq’s leaders are not wasting important units on defending the capital because they know their military strength is inadequate for putting down a military or popular uprising, or standing up to an American onslaught. Two US troop divisions, parachuted into the Tigris area or landed there in gliders, could take Baghdad in hours.
Nonetheless, to keep up the pretence, the Iraqi authorities organized photos for release of Republican Guard units taking up positions around presidential compounds and the villas of top functionaries, as well as several anti-aircraft missile batteries lined up on the eastern bank of the Tigris. No sooner were the Republican Guard units out of Baghdad, than the soldiers and missiles were replaced with cardboard dummies.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources reveal that since they left Baghdad, Saddam Hussein and his top political and military advisers have buried themselves with their families in inter-connected bunker-cities on the fringes of the northwest Iraqi city of Tikrit, guarded by special units of the Republican Guards, made up of officers and soldiers from Saddam’s own Tikrit tribe. One intelligence report puts their number at no more than 25,000 men; another at 45,000. The real figure appears to fall somewhere between 15,000 and 22,000 troops. They are equipped with about 300 tanks and mobile artillery.
However the bunker site and Tikrit are marked out for America’s primary air-missile blitz against Iraq, together with the 45 grand palaces and underground bunker complexes Saddam has built for himself across Iraq – just in case the Iraqi leaders are no longer hunkered down in the Tikrit underground city but have escaped past he electronic screen and gone to ground elsewhere. US military planners are determined to will leave nothing to chance, leave no stone unturned in the hunt for Saddam until he is finally and inescapably cornered.
The Crawford meeting was given an estimate of a week to 10 days for the total obliteration of the Saddam government. A massive aerial-missile bombardment combined with ground action is planned to pulverize the entire complex of bunker cities and wipe out the Iraqi defender forces. The plan calls for US airborne troops to parachute into Iraqi airfields, or land from giant gliders, to clear them way for larger reinforcements.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that US intelligence has mounted the most thorough data-gathering operation ever to make sure the plan succeeds. Any person or group associated with the construction of Saddam’s underground cities, such as the Italian, German, French and Tunisian engineers who built or upgraded sophisticated ventilation and purification systems, were flown to the United States and pumped on every detail of their projects. American agents tried to reach Western or Arab politicians who had been received in Saddam’s underground citadel. They all claimed they had been driven blindfolded to the site three of four hours through the desert. No foreign visitors were received after early May, when Saddam stopped them.
Garnered thus far are descriptions of what the visitors saw when the blindfolds were removed. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources quote them as saying they found themselves in a windowless 40 square meter (430 square foot) hall with red marble walls and floor, facing a bank of three large high-speed elevators with stainless steel doors. The elevators whisked the visitors underground to their meetings with Saddam in the space of 40 to 45 seconds.
But over-zealous security can backfire. Some of the visitors, blindfolded as they left Baghdad and bored to tears, timed and measured every stage of their journey. Most revealing was the time taken be the elevators, by which US intelligence calculated that Saddam’s underground quarters are no more than 10 to 11 floors beneath the ground. The area of his main reception hall for visitors was put at 300 to 400 square meters (3,230 to 4,305 square feet), giving American tacticians a good idea of the size of the entire buried palace.
The hall has only one exit, apparently leading to the Saddam family’s living quarters. One of his last visitors reported Saddam was showing the strain of his months underground and tended to to be snappish. When he complained bitterly to his Iraqi underlings that the dryness of the air impaired his faculties, they installed a big wave-making pool with a small fountain in the center, in the middle of the hall.
Whereas the Iraqi ruler’s hideouts are generally believed to be impenetrable – or that is the impression conveyed by Iraqi intelligence’s psychological warfare department – US intelligence agencies and military planners believe that the more complicated the complex’s support systems, the more vulnerable they are. The ventilation ducts, for instance, for electronic systems, air conditioning and communication equipment, or the entry and exit points of the subterranean access roads, or even the external access and ventilation systems for underground fuel stores. All these systems make bunker cities vulnerable to attack by special smart weapons or ground assault.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources, US intelligence will monitor but not disrupt the subterranean communications, telephone and computer systems – until the assault on the Tikrit region starts. From that moment, the United States will cast an electronic net to jam all communication between Saddam and his military commanders and forces on the outside and among the various sections of the palace-bunker. The expectation is that once he is cut off from the world outside his most intimate circle, Saddam’s political and military authority will soon cave in.
3. Saddam’s Mysterious Apathy
A select group of Iraqi district governors was ushered into Saddam’s palace-bunker about 10 days ago expecting a last briefing from their president on contingencies for a US offensive. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Gulf report they were treated instead to a long harangue from Saddam on public sanitation in their respective districts.
Saddam got down to the nitty-gritty on sanitation in city markets and public services. “Sanitation is one of the most important foundations underpinning the stability of the Iraqi republic,” he told his guests. After the meeting, several governors told close confidantes that their president and supreme commander seemed to have lost touch with reality.
Other military and intelligence sources paint a similar picture of Saddam’s apparent mood. But professional Saddam-watchers, who keep an eye on the Iraqi president through various surveillance systems – notably American, Israeli and British – wonder whether his quirky behavior might not just be an elaborate act.
“The symptoms are too obvious,” one intelligence official told DEBKA-Net-Weekly. “If you take them at face value, you have to conclude that Saddam’s personal and mental condition is so low that it is hard to predict what will happen first – the US offensive to topple him or a mental breakdown with the same result of bringing his regime tumbling down.”
“If that is the case,” says the source. “America could win the war without firing a shot.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources point to various signs of the Iraq ruler having given up, possibly too depressed to put up a fight:
1. Iraq has made no unusual preparations for military action or for withstanding a full-scale war. Nothing has changed in the country’s military disposition except for the massing of special forces at the Tikrit bunker complex where Saddam and his top leaders are holed up.
2. Iraqi military movements begun in June have come to a halt. They included the deployment of divisions on the border with Turkey, the southern banks of the Greater Zab and Lesser Zab rivers, the stationing of forces in central Iraq across from the Jordanian border, and the dispatch of special forces to northern Iraq to confront the US and Turkish commandos occupying bases there. The bulk of those Iraqi forces remain static, although some have returned to base. Iraq has suddenly cut back on its heightened air force activity, also ending a series of training exercises focusing on air combat and the mid-air fueling of Mirage F-1 fighter-bombers.
The only military movement detected lately in Iraq is the accelerated call-up of popular militias, most prominently the Jerusalem Brigades. But these militias are made up of elderly volunteers, most over 50, who lack basic military training and are armed only with antiquated rifles. Intelligence officials believe the militias are not frontline forces, but have been raised to preserve public order on city streets after the army has gone to the front.
As one military source told us: “Anyone who may have feared a long and bloody urban guerrilla can stop worrying.”
3. All of the surface-to-surface missiles deployed in early August north and south of Baghdad have disappeared. Intelligence agencies have been unable to establish their present locations, but are certain that they were not sent back to base. This certainty explains the presence of the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, at the Crawford gathering last Wednesday.
American leaders wanted to hear at first-hand an expert estimate of the Iraqi missile threat to US forces in the Middle East and Gulf, to Israel – especially Tel Aviv – and to Saudi oil fields and facilities, mainly around the world’s largest petroleum port of Ras Tanura. They were anxious for a closer scrutiny of recent CIA intelligence assessments, so far unconfirmed by other sources, that Iraq has procured long-range surface-to-surface missiles, capable of hitting US bases in Europe or European cities as far away as London.
Here now are some updated intelligence estimates of Iraq’s missile arsenal:
Iraq has between 50 and 60 medium-range surface-to-surface missiles (DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s experts put the number at 75 to 125) capable of hitting targets up to 1,000 to 1,200 kilometers (600 to 720 miles) away. Some can carry chemical and biological warheads. Scraps of information gleaned by US intelligence suggest that Saddam has a handful of missiles, perhaps no more than five or six, able to deliver a nuclear payload. If these numbers is correct, Saddam will have to pick and choose his targets carefully if he wants to produce a bang big enough to resonate in Muslim history books, before he leaves the world stage.
In the face of the US Patriot Advanced Capability 3 (PAC 3) anti-missile missile deployed by US forces in the Gulf and Israel’s Arrow-2 missile killer, Saddam will need to launch volleys of 15 to 20 missiles each for a minimum of two to five to survive long enough to reach their targets. Three or four such volleys will leave Iraq’s missile arsenal depleted.
Communication between Saddam and his missile units presents him with an equally serious tactical problem. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, Iraqi missile units, before disappearing from the Baghdad area, were stationed at locations far from chemical and biological weapons depots. It is almost certain that the US military will lay heavy electronic interference on the bunkers where Saddam and his top military officers are hiding out, as well as jamming Iraqi missile batteries’ communications and operational systems. Even now, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report, Saddam, his sons and Iraqi military chiefs have no communications or telephone links with missile unit commanders. Secret messengers, usually officers from Saddam’s Tikrit tribe, are used when necessary.
Back in early June, missile battery commanders received their last instructions on how to meet the contingency of an American attack. They were told that if they did not hear from Saddam or his sons for more than three hours into an attack, to open wax-sealed envelopes, extract the target lists inside and starting shooting without delay. But the built-in weakness of such orders is that the missile commanders might start wondering why on earth they should let loose against alien targets with missiles tipped with chemical and biological warheads when their own leaders may be dead and gone.
US and Israeli intelligence services differ over the scenario. US experts, led by Kadish, expect full obedience to Saddam’s commands from the Iraqi missile commanders, while Israeli experts are much more skeptical.
4. Although the previous three points suggest a fundamental weakness in the Iraqi leadership, Iraq’s intelligence services, especially military intelligence, are still going strong. They have been waging a ruthless campaign in Iraq to uncover potentially rebellious military officers and others liable to cooperate with the United States or its allies. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report dozens, if not hundreds, of Iraqi military intelligence officers acting as agents provocateurs. They are going through armed forces units posing as secret representatives of US-sponsored opposition groups or even US intelligence. They offer large sums of money to “recruit” brother officers to turn coat and join the American side after the war campaign gets underway. Any officer inclining to accept the offer is summarily put to death. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources say at least 35 such officers have been executed over the past two weeks.
The assassination of Palestinian arch terrorist Abu Nidal and four of his operatives in his Baghdad apartment on Friday, August 16 (See also Hot Points Item below), by Iraqi agents also indicated strongly that Iraqi intelligence services was operating efficiently at the behest of Saddam Hussein and his minions.
The latter two events strengthen the suspicion in the American, Israeli and Turkish intelligence communities that Saddam’s seeming apathy and apparent signs of a mental breakdown are a piece of theater designed to misdirect attention from his war plans, which continue to be a hotly debated mystery in Washington, Jerusalem, Ankara and Amman. He may also be putting on the act to disarm vigilance for the mega-terror attacks he plans to launch in the United States and Israel – as DEBKA-Net-Weekly determined last week.