New Year’s Day marked the expiry of Washington’s final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein – without his response. He was given this deadline for confessing to – and delivering up – his unconventional weapons arsenal to the UN – or undergoing oft-postponed full-scale US military action
Four hours before the year 2002 ended, with no definite answers coming from Baghdad, the Pentagon ordered two brigades of the crack US 3rd Infantry Division to start moving toward the Persian Gulf for the confrontation with Iraq. Equipped with heavy armor and supported by nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, the division is arguably the best desert warfare unit in the US Army. The 1st and the 3rd brigades are joining the 3rd division’s second brigade which has been in Kuwait for months, together with most of the division’s equipment. Its commander, like his fellow-generals at the head of other US forces in-theater, is authorized by President George W. Bush to decide on a tactical nuclear response — without referring to higher authority — should their troops inside or outside Iraq come under nuclear, biological or chemical attack.
The Pentagon will also consign three additional forces to round off its troop complement for the war against Iraq. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report the next contingents to leave for the Gulf are the First Marines Expeditionary Force from Camp Pendleton, California, three light divisions from Germany and the 101st Airborne Division that will take off with its combat equipment from Fort Bragg in N. Carolina.
These deployments will double US strength already present in Gulf bases – some 60,000 troops.
The takeoff of the 101st Airborne Division will provide the strongest sign that the war has begun, because some of its combat units are assigned to bypassing Gulf bases and parachuting directly into Iraq.
Once begun, some well-informed military sources predict that the entire transfer of American combat troops will be completed by January 10-12. From that moment on, the US army will ready to launch its full-scale offensive against Iraq – albeit some days earlier than generally predicted.
For ten days, the Pentagon held this complementary force back to give the Iraqi ruler a chance to respond to Washington’s last chance offer.
As DEBKAfile reported on December 29, British premier Tony Blair handed this take-it or leave-it offer to Syrian president Bashar Assad who ended a visit to London on December 20. Assad lost not time in passing the ultimatum on to the Iraqi ruler, whom he met secretly in Baghdad on December 21 immediately after returning home. (Details of US proposal appear in Hot Points 29 Dec. at the bottom of this edition).
The ultimatum was brief and to the point: In return for publicly revealing the full particulars of his nuclear, chemical, biological and missile warfare systems and handing them over to UN inspectors, Saddam would be allowed to step down peacefully under an American guarantee for his and his family’s safety. In token of Washington’s good faith, the movement of US troops to Persian Gulf stations was held up when only roughly half the strength was in place. The other half was held in abeyance to give Saddam time to respond.
There was no deadline on the ultimatum, only a clear message that time was short. The resumption of the interrupted flow of US troops would suffice to inform Baghdad time was up and war preparations had proceeded past the point of no return.
But Saddam, instead of responding directly, used the ten days from receipt of the offer up until January 1 to try and bluff Washington with misleading clues into inferring that he was seriously looking at its terms.
The clues came in different forms.
For instance, fresh reports sourced in the Gulf region portrayed Saddam as a “professional survivor”, who was realistic enough to grasp that his army stood no chance against the US superpower and could be counted on to treat the threat sensibly.
Then, too, there was a rash of rumors that building, inexplicably halted six weeks ago, had resumed at a villa complex known as “Saddam City” in the northern suburbs of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Some Western intelligence sources believe the project is funded from Iraq as a palatial asylum for Saddam and his family.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources cite US, British and Israeli intelligence agencies as not being taken in by these apparent hints of potential compliance with the US ultimatum. By Monday, December 30, they concluded Saddam was up to his old tricks to buy time for maneuver. President George W. Bush showed he was onto Saddam’s game when he declared next morning outside the Coffee Stop in Crawford, Texas, that the Iraqi leader “hasn’t heard the message” – to disarm or face military action.
His comments on Iraq’s ability to damage the US economy were more ominous.
Asked whether the United States could afford the $50 billion to $60 billion price tag on war against Iraq, Bush said: “An attack from Saddam Hussein or a surrogate of Saddam Hussein would cripple our economy. A Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is a threat to the security of the American people.”
Some pundits took this as a reference to the White House budget director’s estimate of the cost of conflict in the Gulf; others that he was pointing up the differences between the Iraqi threat and the North Korean nuclear crisis. (See separate article in this issue.)
However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism and intelligence experts point to the term “Saddam Hussein’s surrogate” as the key to the US President’s meaning. Bush is clearly armed with intelligence information showing that Saddam’s defiance in the face of the American ultimatum extends also to meticulous preparations to mount agonizing terrorist strikes against the United States and its allies, especially Israel, in reprisal for American military action.
He has, moreover, mapped a strategic course based on his interpretation of the US military operational plan against him. Saddam expects the Americans to strike Iraq from the west and south, because they assume that the bulk of the Iraqi army, save for three Republican Army divisions, will surrender immediately. He has therefore resolved to make his final stand at the two big Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Baghdad which are the bulwark of his power.
US and Iraqi intelligence appear to be in accord on one estimate, namely, that most of Iraqi territory, including its oil fields, will fall to American, British and Turkish forces by the end of February, i.e. in stage one of the conflict.
The second stage, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, is likely to open with a US-led siege of Tikrit and Baghdad of undetermined duration. Scenario one has Tikrit falling quickly – even before the second stage begins – and leaving the serious fighting for Baghdad. A second scenario posits a standoff dragging on into the summer.
Given summer temperatures of 56 degrees Centigrade (133 degrees Fahrenheit), US war planners would have to switch tactics to an air campaign or a war of attrition, postponing further ground action until the summer heat eases off in late September. Barring an anti-Saddam uprising quickly putting the two cities in US hands – and it is hard to see who would lead one – the Iraq war could stretch out to the end of October or even mid-November.
Our intelligence sources have heard that Saddam is telling his cronies that, by standing fast in Baghdad and Tikrit, Iraqi troops could give him another six months’ grace in which to repulse the US offensive and save his regime. Why, then, should he bow to the Bush ultimatum?