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The Coming War with Saddam

From the July 29, 2002 issue: Sooner than you think.

9:00 PM, Jul 19, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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"I don't believe there's any deep dissension," says a top defense official with knowledge of Iraq policy. "I've seen that before, and it can be ugly. There's always going to be a wide range of views in any administration. But I just don't see the fighting at the highest levels [in the current one]."

"I just have trouble understanding who's spinning it that way," says a senior administration official.

One possible explanation, offered by several sources, is a misinterpretation--or perhaps a misrepresentation--of the caution that is customary in planning for any use of force. Uniformed leaders are supposed to prepare for worst-case scenarios, after all. In creating combat outlines, military commanders seek out, present, and prepare for even the most horrific possible outcomes.

"The Joint Chiefs did put a briefing together about possible shortages, but they're paid to be cautious," says one administration official involved in the planning. "That certainly wasn't a no-go, and if it was meant as one, that's not how it was received by the president."

General Tommy Franks, who has briefed Bush on Iraq planning at least three times--most recently last Wednesday--presented two very specific concerns. First, he raised the possibility that Saddam will launch chemical and biological attacks--likely enough, since his weapons of mass destruction are crucial to the casus belli. A second concern is the possibility of extended warfare in the streets of Baghdad, involving U.S. troops and the few troops sufficiently loyal to Saddam to fight to the death. Franks, though, has been consistently reassuring on the second point.

The troop numbers--widely reported to range between 200,000 and 250,000--were Franks's first best estimate. And while the debate about the size of the forces needed remains "fluid," no one on either the civilian or military side--including Downing, who left the administration last month amid reports that his plan for a smaller operation had been rejected--raised serious objections to those initial numbers. "Even Downing didn't believe in the so-called Downing plan," says one top official. "Pre-September 11, I don't know anyone who said we should send ground troops to Baghdad. Post-September 11, I don't know many who oppose it."

If reporters and mid-level leakers haven't yet figured out that a war with Iraq is just short of inevitable, Turkish prime minister Bulen Ecevit has. After his meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz last week, Ecevit told a Turkish television network, "The American administration is not hiding that it is determined on a military intervention against Iraq."

And, most important, the likelihood of the coming war hasn't escaped Saddam Hussein. In early March, during one stage of the farcical but nonetheless continuing discussions about resuming U.N. weapons inspections, Iraqi foreign minister Naji Sabri delivered a letter to U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and the Security Council. "How will the relationship between Iraq and the council be normalized under the present declared U.S. policy which aims at invading Iraq and overthrowing its national government by force?"

That the Iraqi dictator believes an American attack is coming--remember, he insists the Gulf War, "The Mother of All Battles," continues to this day--explains much.

ON NOVEMBER 22, 2001, the Ummat, a Pakistani newspaper with close ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda, published a shocking report. It claimed that Taha Husseyn, a high-ranking Iraqi diplomat, had traveled to Kandahar for a meeting with Mavlana Jalal ud-Din Haqqani, a Taliban representative. According to the paper, Husseyn was dispatched by Saddam Hussein to offer whatever support he could--arms, money, sanctuary--to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Although major U.S. news outlets, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, had cited the Ummat's reporting after September 11, none of them repeated this development. Of course, it's nearly impossible to assess the credibility of such reports. (The paper today regularly runs front-page pictures of bin Laden, along with his hateful exhortations to harm Jews and Americans.) Still, if the report of a Saddam-al Qaeda alliance were true, successfully prosecuting the war on terrorism would become even more urgent.

Why, skeptics might ask, would Saddam essentially invite the war to Iraq? It's a fair question, but one with an obvious answer: Saddam has long viewed U.S.-led attacks as inevitable.