Can the war turn nuclear?
If war breaks out because of the Iraqi problem, a nuclear scenario cannot be excluded, writes Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
American military strategists agree that it is virtually impossible to predict how the war on Iraq will play out. The possibilities are endless, ranging from the most optimistic scenario (a fast, decisive US victory with minimum casualties) to the most pessimistic (a long drawn-out war that could even, eventually, acquire a nuclear dimension).
This uncertainty is very different from the situation which prevailed in the run-up to the war waged by the incumbent American president's father against Iraq in 1991. At the time, the senior Bush's military experts were only too ready to predict the course of the war. As it happened, their predictions of a protracted war with high levels of resistance and heavy casualties turned out to be completely off the mark. However, what proved to be an overly pessimistic prediction then could well turn out to be only too accurate this time around. If the 1991 war ended relatively quickly, it was because it set itself the limited aim of driving the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. The war this time sets itself the far more ambitious aim of overthrowing the Iraqi regime and capturing Saddam Hussein, dead or alive.
One thing most American military strategists do agree on is that the invading US troops are unlikely to face stiff resistance because Saddam is hated by his people and his overthrow will be welcomed by most Iraqis. But if there is a lesson to be drawn from the attacks of 11 September 2001, it is that the surprise factor can render the most scientific and rational predictions meaningless. And yet, in making its case for war, the Bush administration discounts the surprise factor completely. Thus on the one hand, it is asking us to believe that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Saddam is still in possession of a vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and that this represents a clear and present danger to which it must respond by attacking Iraq, and, on the other, that the removal of a desperate leader with vast amounts of chemical and biological weapons at his disposal and with his back to the wall will be an easy matter. How to reconcile these two contradictory assumptions?
Russian experts have come up with more realistic assessments, predicting three possible scenarios of how the war might develop. The first scenario posits a decisive victory by the US-led military coalition over Iraq's armed forces in four to six weeks. The assumption here is that the key role in the first phase of combat operations will be played by the air and naval forces of the US and its allies, which will first target Iraq's air defence, then its command posts, basic components of communication and combat supervision, the headquarters of the security forces and the Republican Guard and the most combat-capable divisions of the Iraqi army. This best-case scenario assumes there will not be any significant damage that could seriously impair Iraq's economic reconstruction and that Saddam Hussein regime will collapse. It also assumes that Iraq will not use weapons of mass destruction against American and allied troops. The scenario actually carries an inbuilt contradiction: the American- led attack must be powerful enough to dislodge Saddam and his top associates and moderate enough not to have the team that will be chosen to replace Saddam perceived as mere instruments of the invaders. Russian experts say the chances for this first scenario are 40-60 per cent.
The second scenario predicts that combat operations will last between six and 12 weeks. The main elements include the following: a major surprise resistance from Iraq's air force; protracted street battles in some towns; moderate civilian casualties and severe property damage; attempts by Iraq to use weapons of mass destruction to a limited extent and to strike oil fields in the region. Experts believe the chances for this second scenario are 30-40 per cent.
The third scenario is the worst for the US and its allies. According to this prediction, military operations will last between three and six months, with fierce military resistance from Iraq's air force, intense street battles, heavy civilian casualties and considerable material damage. In this last scenario, Iraq will attack the armed forces of the US and its allies, targeting Israel in particular, with weapons of mass destruction, and successfully strike oil plants in the region. Iraq will, according to this third scenario, attack Turkey's bases and towns and carry out formidable acts of terror against regional -- and perhaps global -- facilities that are of interest to the US and Britain. Experts say the chances for this third scenario are about 10 per cent.
But what if this last, albeit least likely, scenario does come into play? How will Israel rear to an Iraqi attack? In 1991, Washington persuaded Israel not to retaliate when Saddam launched his Scud missiles against it. Today, it is questionable whether Bush will, like his father, ask Israel to exercise self-restraint or, indeed, whether Israel would be willing to comply if he does. So Israel, and its possible reaction to an Iraqi attack, is the wild card in a pack already heavily stacked against any prospect of regional stability in the foreseeable future. If a cornered Saddam, who has once before demonstrated that he considers Israel a legitimate target, fits out the missiles Washington insists he still possesses with chemical or biological warheads and launches them against Israel, there are fears that the latter will be tempted to retaliate by firing a nuclear weapon at Baghdad. According to John Pike, director of the independent think tank Global Security, if Saddam manages to kill only 50 or even 500 Israelis, Israel would probably not use its nuclear option. But in the event of "50 thousand casualties -- done deal!" An Israeli nuclear bomb, which could kill millions of Iraqis, might turn the attack on a single nation into a world war, he says, with some Muslim nations joining Iraq's side against a US-Israeli alliance. Such a development would, he adds, "shape the course of Mideast history for the rest of the millennium".
But even if Israel holds back from striking a retaliatory blow, it is certain that a war waged by the US against Iraq will expose America's alliances with Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, for example, to deep tensions. The Afghan war has exposed the Musharraf regime to serious trouble and has strengthened religious radicalism. There is also the fact that relations between Pakistan and India, both with proven nuclear capability, are deeply strained over Kashmir. The well-known political analyst Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of state under Clinton, believes that if a radical government in Pakistan were to overthrow Musharraf, the danger of nuclear war in South Asia would "increase dramatically".
American officials are talking openly of not limiting their regime change policy to Iraq, but of extending it to a number of Middle East countries including Iran, Syria, Libya and Lebanon. Actually, what we are facing here is the most ambitious plan to redraw the political map of the Middle East since the 1916 Sykes- Picot Treaty by which Britain and France carved up the Ottoman-ruled region between themselves after World War I. The regime change policy espoused by the current administration is in fact a revamped version of the Eisenhower Doctrine by which America sought to replace Britain and France as the dominant power in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez crisis. It is also a more ambitious version of the Doctrine, seeking not only to assert America's control over the Middle East and its vast oil reserves, but its preponderant position in a unipolar world order.
A particularly hot zone with which America will have to contend if war breaks out is the border area separating Iraq from Turkey. The vast majority of Turks -- 94 per cent according to recent polls -- are opposed to war. And, despite promises of a massive economic payoff for Turkey's cooperation and strong pressure from Turkey's powerful military establishment and its big bourgeoisie, the Turkish parliament voted against taking part in an American-led war on Iraq. Actually, Turkey's involvement in the war would have far-reaching implications. In the power struggle that is expected to follow the collapse of the government in Baghdad, it is far from certain that Iraq's territorial integrity will remain intact. The threat of fragmentation is very real: we might well see the country broken up into a Kurdish state in the north, a Shi'ite state in the south and a Sunni state in between. If Turkey does take part in the war, the Kurdish region in the north will become particularly explosive, with Kurdish-Turkish, and possibly Kurdish-Iranian tensions reaching critical levels.
Thus the outbreak of war can ignite a number of hot spots simultaneously. For example, if Saddam decides to use the 6,500 gallons of anthrax Bush insists are still unaccounted for, or if Israel respond to an Iraqi attack with a nuclear strike, the war could get completely out of hand. But despite all the risks involved. Bush continues to insist that nothing, not even a Security Council veto, will make him abandon his war plans.
11 September 2001, was not the first time America's sense of invincibility was shattered. A similarly traumatic event was the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese on 7 December 1941. In response to that slap in the face, America dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Will the war on Iraq, which is justified in the name of 11 September, produce equally cataclysmic scenarios?
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Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 13 - 19 March 2003 (Issue No. 629)
Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/629/op3.htm