Vast number of U.S. troops needed to fight Iraq, commander says

W By Jonathan S. Landay

wASHINGTON (KRT) – The commander who is planning a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq has won Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld’s support for a ground force well in excess of 100,000 American troops, said senior defense officials and military analysts.

Some top civilian aides to Rumsfeld had argued that the Iraqi army could be defeated and Saddam Hussein ousted by a much smaller number of troops relying on speed, surprise, air power, psychological operations and help from Iraqi opposition groups, the officials and analysts said.

But they said that Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of American forces in the Middle East as head of the Tampa, Fla.-based U.S. Central Command, and other top officers countered that Iraq is not Afghanistan and Saddam’s forces could be much more formidable than the ragtag Taliban militia.

Franks and others insisted that an invasion force be big enough to deal with a worst-case scenario in which Iraqi resistance does not quickly collapse, as widely forecast, and U.S. troops become embroiled in heavy combat in Baghdad or other densely populated areas.

“Franks wanted to go in there loaded for bear,” said one senior military official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity. Rumsfeld’s “approach was you need to justify what you have.”

A ground force of around 130,000 American troops would be a small fraction of the half-million-strong contingent that drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

But the 375,000-man Iraqi army is plagued by low morale and obsolete weapons. Those factors plus new precision-guided bombs, other advanced technologies and weapons, better tactics and the experiences of wars in the Balkans and Afghanistan give the U.S. military a commanding edge, experts said.

“With the right force, with the right options, with an excellent psyops (psychological operations) campaign, we will have a relatively short, sharp attack that will bring down the (Iraqi) regime,” predicted former Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the 1991 conflict. “If we screw it up, we could end up with a political debacle.”

Rumsfeld has declined to discuss any details of a possible Iraq invasion. He repeatedly has said that President Bush has not yet decided whether to make good on his threat of military attack if Saddam refuses to comply with a new round of U.N. weapons inspections.

Before Rumsfeld accepted Franks’ arguments for a large ground force, he repeatedly challenged the general to explain his reasoning, said senior defense officials.

“The secretary accepts the fact that you have to plan for a worst case,” said a second senior defense official. “There are others who have agendas and who surround the secretary and who challenge from an unintelligent point of view. Sometimes it’s pure stupidity. But the secretary is very, very practical.”

In fact, it is not clear that Rumsfeld ever supported his aides’ push for an invasion force of 80,000 troops or fewer. The second senior defense official said news reports of those options were “disinformation.”

Defense officials and experts outside the Pentagon said higher-than-expected Iraqi resistance was not the only concern. Sufficient numbers of U.S. troops will be needed to capture Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons and missiles before they can be used. They also will have to secure long supply lines.

Moreover, the invasion force will have to be big enough to ensure that Saddam’s removal is not followed by an explosion in political, religious and ethnic tensions that could tear Iraq apart.

Many experts worry that once Saddam is gone, Iraq’s Shiite Muslims, who are in the majority but have been repressed and denied political power for years, might slaughter ruling Baathist Party officials and their families, most of whom are from the Sunni branch of Islam. In addition, neighboring countries fear that Iraq’s ethnic Kurds could try to use Saddam’s ouster to carve out an autonomous republic in the north.

But an American ground force also can’t be too big. It must be fast and agile, which means keeping its logistics “tail” of fuel and ammunition supplies to manageable proportions. And it can’t be so large that it offers easy targets for Iraqi missiles, perhaps carrying chemical or biological weapons, especially as troops and vehicles are assembling in neighboring Arab nations.

Defense officials said it had been Rumsfeld’s practice to continually probe and challenge Franks on all the assumptions and components of his plan. The second senior defense official said Rumsfeld particularly had insisted that Franks exploit all the advances in mobility and firepower that the American military had developed since the 1991 war.

Defense officials and experts said the invasion plan, which was still evolving, called for a ground force of two or three Army heavy divisions – each of which typically includes more than 400 tanks and armored vehicles – an Army light division and a Marine Expeditionary Force.

An Army division numbers about 17,000 soldiers. A Marine Expeditionary Force has about 45,000 troops.

Other U.S. units also are expected to participate, including special forces, as well as about 15,000 British troops, bringing the ground force to at least 115,000 soldiers, they said.

“The people who thought you could do this with one or two divisions have lost the debate,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert with the Brookings Institution, an independent policy institute. Rumsfeld “ultimately realized that the force of logic pushed toward moderately large numbers.”

The invasion is expected to be bolstered by large naval and air forces. It also is expected to be preceded by massive strikes on Iraqi air defenses, military and regime facilities, and weapons of mass destruction sites. Those strikes would be carried out by cruise missiles and planes carrying precision-guided bombs flying out of bases in the region and from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.