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Next Step : Iraqi Army Could Put U.S. to Test : The military buildup by Saddam Hussein has been speedy, calculated, impressive--and lethal. It presents a grim prospect in the current gulf crisis.


BAGHDAD, Iraq — During the decade before Iraq's swift, early-morning conquest of Kuwait, the royal family in that tiny Persian Gulf emirate sent hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Among its gifts: 50 Chieftain-5 main battle tanks that were reportedly part of the Iraqi assault force that invaded and took Kuwait within a matter of hours on Aug. 2.

During those same 10 years, France, which is now part of the multinational force that may soon do battle in the desert, sold Baghdad no less than $5 billion in sophisticated military hardware. Included were 180 Mirage F-1C and state-of-the-art Mirage EQ5 jet fighters, scores of attack helicopters, 200 modern armored personnel carriers, high-tech avionics kits to update outmoded Soviet fighter-bombers, and thousands of anti-tank and anti-ship missiles--all of which would certainly be used against French troops in the event of war.

Also during that same decade, technicians from West Germany--another supporter of the allied effort against Hussein--helped the Iraqi leader develop advanced chemical weapons factories, including one in the Iraqi town of Samarra where Hussein is known to be holding at least eight German hostages as human shields against attack.

Those are among the many ironies in the story of how, within a decade, Iraq quietly managed to build the fourth-largest--and, according to several Western military experts, the third-most sophisticated--armed force on the globe.

It is an $80-billion story of one of the fastest and most calculated military buildups in modern history, and it helps to explain just why U.S. defense officials now say they need at least a month more to assemble an air and ground force of sufficient strength to take on Hussein's sophisticated, battle-tested military machine on his home desert turf.

Just a few dozen miles from the forward bases of U.S. and allied forces in northern Saudi Arabia are the front lines of an enemy that, in addition to its much-publicized million-member regular army, also possesses: between 4,000 and 4,200 main battle tanks; an additional 5,000 armored personnel vehicles; 9,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers; hundreds more guided missiles, many with ranges of more than 400 miles, and an air force that includes nearly 1,000 modern warplanes that one Western military expert in Baghdad described as "an airborne fighting force exceeded in sophistication only by the U.S. and the Soviet Union."

"From the standpoint of equipment," the expert added, "they are as good as any Western army. They have a mixture of Soviet and Western technology--Soviet for simple weapons systems, and French and other European hardware for the more sophisticated systems.

"And when you look at how the Iraqis went about building up that force, you can only marvel at their ingenuity and commitment. It reads like a textbook of how to create a lethal fighting force that can challenge anyone in their region virtually overnight."

So great and sophisticated is the firepower of the Iraqis and the growing multinational alliance poised near their border that Dr. Herbert Wulf, an expert at Sweden's Stockholm International Peace Research Institute recently commented, "It there's a war, it's certainly going to be a high-tech war. There will be a lot of casualties on both sides."

The institute, which closely monitors all arms imports and exports worldwide, prepared a fact sheet within days of Iraq's invasion that attempts to illustrate both the trend and the scale of Iraq's arms imports during the decade leading up to the continuing gulf crisis. That, combined with detailed briefings from Western defense analysts in Baghdad and elsewhere, reinforced the grim picture of what is likely to result should the current military and political stalemate in the gulf collapse into all-out war.

"No matter how much equipment and how many men the West and its allies put up against them, the Iraqis certainly are not going to be pushovers," said one European strategic analyst in Baghdad. "Given the size of the Iraqi air force and the configuration of its air bases, for example, it would take at least a week to 10 days of almost constant fighting before the multinational force could achieve air superiority. What that means is a lot of aircraft and a lot of lives lost--on both sides."

And, on the ground, Iraq now possesses the modern world's most successful, desert-proven armored brigades--tank and artillery divisions that won consistent victories over the larger, U.S.-equipped Iranian army during the bloody, eight-year Persian Gulf War.

"When it comes to desert combat, you're really talking about tank and artillery warfare," the European expert added. "No doubt that, on paper, the U.S. and British armor is far superior to Iraq's, which is almost entirely Soviet, but no one knows just how it will perform in an actual war situation. And that's where Iraq already has proven skills."

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