War in Iraq Could Be Quick but Risky
Thu Jan 30, 2:16 PM ET
By NIKO PRICE, Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK - An attack on Iraq could well result in a quick U.S. victory with minimum casualties, but there is also a possibility of disastrous consequences, from mushroom clouds to a Muslim world in rage and turmoil.
How likely are these scenarios? Even the most informed experts on the Middle East can only conjecture. But while many expect a fast, decisive U.S. victory, most also see a possibility of things going very bad.
After the Gulf War (news - web sites) in 1991, analysts were criticized for predicting levels of resistance and casualties that didn't come. But many say the situation would be different in a war today — in part because Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) would be more desperate.
In 1991, the U.S. objective was to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, and to this day there is a debate about whether the elder President Bush (news - web sites) erred in not sweeping on to Baghdad and ousting Saddam.
Bush the son has made clear that if the Americans go in, they want to come out with Saddam dead or under arrest. So an Iraqi leader who may have weapons of mass destruction would have little to lose in using them.
"His back is against the wall, so why not go down in a blaze of glory?" asked Richard K. Betts, a defense and terrorism expert who is director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and is a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.
Military strategists don't expect major resistance from Iraq's army. But as the Sept. 11 attacks taught the world, conventional warfare isn't the only way to fight, and Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, steered clear of making any promises of quick or easy victory.
If the United States goes to war, it will be because Bush believes Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, specifically chemical and biological weapons. It would follow that Saddam would use those weapons to fight back.
Saddam doesn't have missiles that could reach the United States. But as he demonstrated in 1991 by firing 39 Scud missiles at Israel, he considers Israel a surrogate target. Those Scuds had only conventional warheads, and Washington managed to dissuade Israel from retaliating.
If the missiles carried chemical or biological warheads this time, and if they caused serious damage, Washington's job would be much harder. Some say major casualties would force Israel to retaliate by firing a nuclear weapon at Baghdad.
"If Saddam was able to kill 50 Israelis — no. Five hundred — probably not. Fifty thousand — done deal," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an independent military policy think tank.
An Israeli nuclear bomb, which could kill millions of Iraqis, might turn an attack on a single nation into a world war, with some Muslim nations joining Iraq's side against a U.S.-Israeli alliance.
"It would shape the course of Mideast history for the rest of the millennium," Pike said.
Even without Israeli retaliation, a war against Iraq would strain Washington's alliances in the Muslim world, especially with Pakistan.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who paid a high political price to support the Americans in their Afghanistan (news - web sites) campaign, could see pressure rise from more radical Muslim factions in the event of a U.S. war with Iraq.
Pakistan and perennial rival India are both nuclear-armed. If a radical government overthrew Musharraf, the danger of nuclear war in South Asia would increase dramatically, a possibility raised by Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state under President Clinton (news - web sites).
"To avoid a cascade of unintended consequences, Bush must use the firepower he is assembling in the Gulf as a terrible swift sword that beheads Saddam in a single stroke," Talbott wrote in YaleGlobal Online, a publication of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
Another worst-case scenario involves terrorist attacks in Israel, European nations or the United States.
President Bush has said that despite billions of dollars spent on security from terrorists, the U.S. government cannot absolutely prevent another attack. Americans are concerned. In an AP poll last month, two-thirds of the 1,008 adults questioned said they were worried about a war increasing chances of a terrorist attack at home.
Betts says they're right to worry. He estimated the chances of a major attack in the United States during an Iraq war as 20 to 25 percent.
Nobody knows what such an attack would look like, much as nobody predicted that jetliners would slam into the symbols of America's military and economic might.
And while security measures have made things harder for terrorists, Betts said even a "clumsy" terrorist attack could kill tens of thousands of Americans. In his speech Tuesday night, Bush said Iraq has yet to account for up to 6,500 gallons of anthrax.
Who would mount such an attack? Perhaps Iraqi agents in the United States. Perhaps terrorists from a group like al-Qaida enraged by U.S. forces invading a Muslim country.
"Even if it goes well — short, quick, with Iraqis dancing in the street — it will nevertheless be known as a U.S. war against a Muslim country," said Judith Kipper, a specialist in Middle East politics for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Best-case or worst-case, any war is going to be a rationale for thousands of new soldiers for al-Qaida."
Then there's the war itself. Bombing carries few battlefield risks, but taking out Saddam would likely involve U.S. ground troops sweeping into Baghdad and possibly fighting house-to-house battles with Iraqi soldiers on their home turf.
Already, U.S. troops in Kuwait are training for such a mission, the risks driven home by one of the instructors, Battalion Sgt. Maj. Robert Gallagher, a veteran of a disastrous U.S. mission in Mogadishu in 1993 in which Somalis downed two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 Americans.
The United States lost its stomach for the war in Somalia soon after that event and pulled out.
And then there's the problem of what comes next. Even if victory is swift, the United States would be committed to maintaining the peace — perhaps for years — in a notoriously volatile and dangerous part of the world.
"The U.S. will be committed to stay as long as necessary to help the Iraqi people to get a good start in rebuilding their country, and will be equally committed to leave as soon as this objective has been achieved," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said this week.
Iraqi neighbors Iran, Syria and Turkey have vital national interests in what happens to Iraq, which has the world's second-largest oil deposits. They have helped arm Iraqi factions in the past and might do so again in the power struggle that would follow an Iraqi government collapse, risking possible conflicts between those nations themselves.
The United States could get caught in the middle, and see a rebuilding effort drag on into a running conflict that drags on for years or even decades.
"I think a short, happy war would defuse that to a certain degree," Kipper said, "but whether security can be established in Iraq and whether Iraqis will tolerate a U.S. occupation is doubtful."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Niko Price is correspondent at large for The Associated Press.