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Analysts: Saddam ready to 'scorch' Iraq in attack

From Barbara Starr and Mike Mount

Oil fields in Kuwait burn after being set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991. Pentagon planners believe Saddam Hussein could adopt a
Oil fields in Kuwait burn after being set ablaze by retreating Iraqi forces in 1991. Pentagon planners believe Saddam Hussein could adopt a "scorched earth" policy in response to an invasion.

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U.S. military sources tell CNN's Jamie McIntyre that Saddam Hussein may torch oil wells and destroy infrastructure if Iraq is invaded (December 18)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Saddam Hussein is preparing a "scorched earth policy" in which he might torch oil wells, destroy power plants and blow up food storage facilities if Iraq is invaded or his hold on power threatened, U.S. military officials believe.

In a background briefing Wednesday, military officials said Saddam would go to extreme measures to create a humanitarian crisis if his country is attacked or his regime imperiled.

They said they believe Saddam is planning to burn his country's own oil wells in the same way Iraqi troops blew up Kuwaiti wells during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the military sources said analysts also think the Iraqi president would "manufacture" evidence of civilian war casualties and blame the U.S. military in an attempt to halt or deflect an attack.

This is a lesson Saddam learned in 1991 when U.S. forces accidentally bombed a bunker and killed women and children they didn't know were inside, temporarily halting bombing, officials said.

They said the military has "solid evidence" that Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction if he believes he is about to topple.

Iraq claims it has no such weapons, a category that generally includes poisonous chemicals, biological agents and nuclear/radioactive material. The country recently released a nearly 12,000-page weapons declaration to U.N. weapons inspectors and selected member nations, including the United States.

President Bush's advisers are skeptical that the declaration is accurate. His national security team has recommended that the United States declare Iraq has violated U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 by failing to fully account for its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.

The White House said Wednesday the Iraqi president had missed "his last chance" to disarm. (Full story)

Years of intelligence

Wednesday's Pentagon briefing was held in response to request from various news organizations, including CNN, and touched on a variety of topics.

Military sources said their conclusions about what Saddam and his troops might do in an attack were based on more than a decade of research conducted since the Gulf War.

The intelligence represents information gleaned by military analysts, people in the region, military flyovers, satellite photography and more, officials said.

Based on that information, officials believe that Saddam likely would use weapons of mass destruction immediately if his presidency endangered.

Targets of such weapons would likely include Israel, U.S. troops in Iraq and minorities around Baghdad.

U.S. officials also believe Kuwait would be a major target, because Saddam has a deep hatred for the Kuwaiti ruling family, whom he blames for his problems.

The officials said Saddam has believed since the September 11 attacks that the United States wanted to strike his country.

The United States believes that Saddam now is following a "defense in depth" policy, focusing his effort on defending Baghdad against attack, officials said.

Although Iraq has two heavy armor divisions in the southern part of the country, Saddam does not believe he can defend the southern marshlands or Basra against an attack, according to analysts.

Instead, he will focus on central Iraq, where forces continue a pattern of digging trenches and barriers to protect military equipment, officials said.

The Iraqis will try to take advantage of geographic features such as rivers and marshes to halt a U.S. advance by land.

U.S. officials have been saying that Iraq might also try to engage invading troops in urban areas, and the Iraqis will heavily defend western Baghdad, where Saddam has key facilities.

According to the U.S. officials, Iraq would have to confront a tactical downside to fighting in the cities -- a problem of needing troops who are highly motivated, which is not now the case.

'War weary' populace

Officials said Iraq's regular army would likely fall quickly -- within days -- but Saddam's elite unit, the Republican Guard, might fight longer.

U.S. officials also described the Iraqi people as "war weary," meaning they possibly might welcome U.S. military intervention to free them from Saddam.

These intelligence officials detailed an Iraqi military force that is smaller and clearly less capable since the Persian Gulf War. Iraq's military is plagued by manpower shortages, equipment shortages and morale problems. But there has been one increased capability -- communications.

Communications assets have grown in Iraq, thanks to equipment sales in recent months from Chinese and Turkish firms. A fiber optic communications network now links "all sorts" of military facilities across the country. U.S. officials said they believe this has helped provide the Iraqis with rapid communications capabilities.

Though the United States has bombed some of these fiber-optic areas in the southern no-fly zone, the Iraqis continue to repair damaged areas.

U.S. military officials also gave these details from the Pentagon's latest assessment of Iraq:

• Total Iraqi ground forces now number about 375,000, about one-third of the pre-Gulf War levels. There are now 23 divisions, compared to 70 divisions before Operation Desert Storm. Of those 23 divisions, six are Republican Guard divisions, with 80,000 to 90,000 troops.

• There are three Republican Guard armored divisions around Baghdad and two infantry divisions in northern Iraq, arrayed against the Kurds. There is a single Republican Guard infantry division southeast of Baghdad, arrayed for protection of the city. Each of these divisions has about 10,000 troops. There are also two special operations force brigades, one west of Baghdad and one near the city. Each has about 3,000 troops trained as elite infantry. Troops in the west are positioned against a possible U.S. or Israeli military action, according to other sources. Currently there are several hundred Iraqi troops on an operational deployment west of Baghdad.

• Morale problems plague the military, including the Republican Guard, and there is evidence of coup attempts from that sector.

• Iraqi ground force training is described as "robust," but there are shortages of equipment and ammunition, and some training is not considered realistic. The Iraqi military, across the board, suffers from lack of mobility, despite the illegal diversion to the military of trucks and vehicles bought in recent years. They have smuggled in some night vision equipment, but the officials could offer no details.

• Of the 17 regular army divisions, six are heavy divisions that lack key reconnaissance and air defense equipment. Eleven are infantry divisions. All of these units have 50 percent to 70 percent of the troops and equipment they need.

• The Iraqi air force has 300 combat fighters, compared to 750 before the war. Some 109 additional fighters remain in Iran, where they were flown during the war. The 60 fighters in the force -- F-1 Mirages, MiG 25s and MiG 29s -- are considered fairly capable. Just 60 percent to 80 percent of the force is considered "flyable," but less than that is considered "fully missionable capable." Pilots each get 20 to 50 hours training annually, about the same a U.S. pilot gets each month. There is evidence that Iraqi air force pilots are reluctant to engage coalition aircraft. Many pilots come from the Dulaym tribe, which has long had elements hostile to the regime.

• Iraq has a small, new unmanned aerial vehicle specifically built for reconnaissance that may also be capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction and reaching Israel. It was built as a drone and is not a converted manned aircraft. No other details were offered.

• In the air defense sector, troops are also demoralized. Most of Iraq's air defense missiles and launchers remain outside the no-fly zones within central Iraq, so they have been largely protected during routine coalition operations. Because of that, and the Iraqi ability to repair bombed sites, the overall countrywide capability remains largely unchanged in recent years. There are currently 24 Sa-3 batteries; 10 Sa-6 batteries, and 22 SA-2 batteries in Iraq, mainly around Baghdad and Tikrit

Officials said that in preparing for war Saddam has begun placing his weapons of mass destruction closer to the troops that would be directed to use them, including the Republican Guard, missile units and air force units.

Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capabilities remain dangerous, though intelligence officials said the biological weapons would be more of a threat than chemical weapons.

Iraq has improved its biological weapons program since 1991 because of improved technology and an increased supply of dry agents, a more lethal method of delivery than liquid-based agents.

Officials said Iraq's chemical weapons capability is much less of a threat than it was in 1991 because of a decreased amount of munitions and the amount of agents available.

Iraq's nuclear program also remains a worry, though to what extent intelligence officials said they do not know.

The country lacks the needed fissile material to finish a complete nuclear weapon, though it could have a nuclear weapon within a year if the material is made immediately available.

If Iraqi scientists are able to covertly build hidden facilities to create the needed material, officials said, Iraq could have a nuclear weapon in five to seven years.

The discrepancy in the time frame, intelligence officials said, is based on uncertainty as to when Iraq may have started constructing such facilities after the U.N. weapons inspectors pulled out of Iraq in 1998.

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