For Saddam Hussein, there’s nothing more relaxing than enjoying a good cigar with good company.
That’s the picture the Iraqi leader wanted to paint this week when he staged a get-together with senior Iraqi officers in his bunker hideout in Tikrit.
But it was all a smokescreen, obscuring the fact that Iraq’s colonels and generals – many of them out-of-shape codgers who have not conducted the business of war for years – are no match for the pile of trouble US military commanders will soon heap on their heads.
In an unprecedented move, Iraq distributed video footage to Western correspondents in Baghdad showing Saddam, between blowing smoke rings from the cigar in his hand, turning to his officers and saying: “It’s stuffy in here – full of smoke. Maybe someone can get up and open a window?”
The not-so-clever Iraqis were trying to hint that a carefree Saddam had no qualms about meeting his top commanders in a building above-ground instead of in one of his fortified bunker-palaces.
What the Iraqis missed – and what US intelligence analysts caught – was that no one actually got up to open a window. That would have been quite a feat in the windowless bunker where the meeting took place.
The Americans retaliated with their own psychological war strike the next day. Wednesday, January 29, US military press officers in Qatar invited a crew from the pan-Arab al-Jazeera satellite television station to fly out to the US aircraft carrier Nimitz, just arrived in the Gulf. Such visits are usually limited to grandstanding takeoffs and landings on deck, with photographers admonished to remove their souvenir ball caps before the hats are sucked into the jet engines’ intakes.
This time, history was made: the crew was taken to areas on the giant ship where nuclear weapons – on active status – are stored.
Simply put, the US war command wanted to show Iraqis and the rest of the Arab world that the United States was serious about going nuclear against Iraq if Iraq or its proxy terrorist groups wielded weapons of mass destruction against American soldiers or allied forces.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that war preparations on both sides have gone into high gear.
Following are the latest key military developments, as reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources:
A. In a series of concentrated bombardments, the US air force has destroyed the Chinese-built fiber optic communications networks that linked the Iraqi general command with surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft missile batteries across Iraq. Those units can now be reached only by vulnerable conventional communications systems or telephones.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report this series of strikes will be recorded by military historians for its astonishing precision and seamless implementation. Until it was executed, an operation of this kind had been considered impossible. The fiber optics fan out in spaghetti junctions through hard-to-locate hubs called routers. The US Air Force managed to locate the switching centers and destroy all of them. US warplanes then began round the clock patrols to ensure the networks were not repaired. They dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets warning Iraqi soldiers and civilians not to approach the destroyed communications hubs.
With communications down, Saddam had no choice but to order all the missile batteries to abandon their positions and move to Baghdad, where couriers can deliver messages from headquarters.
B. The Yanks are coming: vanguard units of the 101st Airborne Division in Connecticut and the 82nd Airborne in Germany are being transferred to secret locations in the Gulf to prepare for the arrival of the main divisional forces. It is likely that the main elements of the two divisions will be flown straight to the battlefield once the war begins. Elements of the 101st will parachute into the Shaat al-Arab area, at the entrance to the Faw Peninsula, inside Iranian territory. They will board amphibious craft now being prepared by the vanguard units to cross the waterway, at a point where it is no more than 100 meters wide, and mount an assault on the Iraqi city of Basra and nearby oil fields.
Troops from the 82nd Airborne will also fly directly from bases in Germany and parachute into western Iraq.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report a growing tendency on the part of General Tommy Franks, commander of the US campaign against Iraq, to try to shorten the war by dropping large numbers of airborne troops.
Earlier this week, Cyprus agreed to allow British bases on the eastern Mediterranean island to be used as a staging post for the attack on Iraq. Preparations are in train to parachute British forces gathering in Cyprus into western Iraq, aboard flights crossing Israeli and Jordanian air space. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources in Cyprus, the entire coast between Limassol and the western resort of Paphos has effectively become a closed military area under the control of British forces preparing for the airborne assault.
In addition, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say the US air base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia is fully prepared for the offensive.
In northern Iraq, work on building or extending six air bases has been wrapped up. Three of the biggest bases will be able to handle C-130 Hercules cargo planes or CA-130 gun-ships. They are: Beni Harir, north of Irbil, in an area controlled by the Kurds and where US special forces have been deployed, Bayrajo, along the main Suleimaniyeh-Kirkuk highway, and Bamerni outside the Kurdish city of Dahouk.
Bamerni is the only base in the area where the US military intends to land fighter planes and bombers. US forces assembling at Bamerni will eventually be flown south by helicopter to capture the second biggest oil city in northern Iraq, Mosul. Three smaller airfields in the area will be used by US light reconnaissance planes and helicopters.
Work on the six bases was carried out by the Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 based in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Also in northern Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that a large-scale Kurdish call-up has been completed. With the help of US special forces, US-made weapons were distributed to the Kurdish legion under the joint command of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader, Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdish Democratic Party chief Massoud Barzani.
The Kurds have managed to raise an army of 90,000, larger than expected and well-equipped with US weapons and off-road vehicles and artillery.
It is roughly double the size of the Northern Alliance that backed the US war effort in Afghanistan in 2001. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say the US war command is on track to complete by February 25 all its preparations for an offensive which, as we reported in our previous issue, can begin any time between the last week of February or early March.