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Iraqi Army: World's 5th Largest but Full of Vital Weaknesses : Military: It will soon be even larger. But its senior staff is full of incompetents and only a third of its troops are experienced.


WASHINGTON — More than any other country, Iraq is a nation under arms--a society dominated to an unparalleled degree by a war machine that consumes fully a quarter of the country's oil-rich treasure and half of its able-bodied men.

Already Iraq's army is the fifth largest in the world, a million men and growing, larger in raw numbers than the U.S. Army and Marine Corps combined. Currently mobilizing still more men, U.S. analysts now believe, Baghdad soon will have boosted that force by half, handing weapons and uniforms to three of every four men between the ages of 15 and 49. And each of these soldiers is held to a standard of unquestioning loyalty to one man: Saddam Hussein.

"In many ways, Iraq is like the Soviet Union: A great hell of a big military establishment," said a U.S. official. "It's their chief industry. They produce dates and oil and weapons"--and little else, he said.

But the Goliath of the Middle East has critical weaknesses, shortcomings that U.S. military planners will seek to exploit if the current standoff in the desert should become a shooting war.

The Iraqi army is an experienced, highly disciplined and well-equipped force--capable even of a complex helicopter-borne assault like the commando raid 10 days ago that seized the emir's palace in Kuwait city long before heavy tanks arrived to secure the captured capital.

The army's loyalty to Hussein is enforced by a code that imposes death for failure, with one sadly blundering general executed by the dictator himself in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War.

And in its current posture, dug in around Kuwait, it is an army on its firmest ground, a force that by experience and doctrine is most formidable on defense.

Also, Iraq--by Third World standards at least--has developed a formidable munitions industry, developing even such relatively sophisticated military hardware as ballistic missiles, airborne radar and chemical and nuclear weapons.

There are weaknesses, however.

The Iraqi senior staff is riddled with incompetents chosen not for military prowess but for allegiance to Hussein, according to American analysts.

Only about a third of the huge army's soldiers are experienced, front-line combat troops.

And despite the skill of its veteran field commanders in holding defensive ground, they are considered less impressive when called on to attack, potentially inept at maneuvering large numbers of troops and tanks when confronted with the unexpected.

Iraq's air force is large but weak, its air defenses primitive by Western standards, its navy virtually non-existent.

The bottom line, according to a U.S. government analyst who has spent years studying the Iraqi military: "Israel would kick the heck out of them. We would kick the heck out of them."

That confidence goes to the presumed ability of U.S. forces to repel an Iraqi attack. No one, however, is speaking of trying to dislodge the 150,000-member Iraqi force now dug into fortified positions in southern Kuwait. The U.S. force, even if it grows to the projected 100,000 troops and even with America's vastly superior air and naval power, is unlikely to prevail in such a struggle without massive losses of men and equipment.

The stakes are huge for both sides. The United States is risking thousands of young soldiers and its prestige as a world leader. Its economy is already perched on the edge of a recession, and further disruption in world oil supplies caused by a full-scale Middle East war could drive the United States into a recession.

The risks for Hussein are literally life or death, analysts say. He is likely to be toppled and killed if this adventure fails, although he is not now considered to be in jeopardy of a rebellion within the military.

"Saddam is both feared and admired," said a senior U.S. analyst. "The guy is very calculating, very smart and in a way, very charismatic. The guy is also a thug. He's very brutal and he's very ruthless."

A senior U.S. government analyst said that the possibility of a military-led coup against Hussein is "zip"--zero.

But the penalty for failure in the Iraqi army, and in Iraqi politics, is "they carry you out feet first," this official noted.

That fate may befall Hussein himself if he is humiliated in the current standoff against U.S. and allied forces. The sentence probably would be carried out not by military officers, who have distanced themselves from politics, but by the Revolutionary Command Council, the regime's supreme ruling body.

But Hussein has shown an ability in the past when he runs up against a brick wall--as he did after his invasion of Iran in 1980, which launched the Iran-Iraq War--to pull back, dig in and fight a war of attrition. U.S. officials think this is his most likely course of action now, given the huge forces being marshaled against him.

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