WASHINGTON — Bush Administration officials have concluded that the outcome of the Persian Gulf War--and the long-term stability of the Middle East--hinges on the destruction of the elite Republican Guard units, which remain under round-the-clock bombardment from allied warplanes.
Administration strategists believe that crushing the 150,000-man Republican Guard will drive a stake through the heart of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime and lead to the collapse of the rest of Iraq's million-man army.
Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, said Friday that initial assessments indicate that the aerial assault on guard units is beginning to produce results.
"We believe we are having a significant impact on them, but we can't prove that from the type of information that we have in front of us right now," he said.
The guard, which is entrenched and dispersed throughout northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, is as critical to Iraq and as threatening to its neighbors as are Baghdad's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, officials said. It also represents the most formidable force that U.S. and allied troops would face in a ground offensive, adding urgency to the Administration's efforts to eliminate it.
Although public statements of Administration policy are less explicit, officials have acknowledged privately that annihilation of the guard has become a primary war objective and would continue even if Hussein suddenly embraced a peaceful solution to the conflict.
"We're not interested in the orderly withdrawal of his intact army," said a senior Administration official. If the Republican Guard were left intact, either by an early Iraqi surrender or a failure to target the elite troops with sufficient force, "it would pose a grave threat to the security of the region," the official said.
"It's going to take an awful lot to get us to stop," said another top Administration official.
The Administration has said repeatedly that the goal of Operation Desert Storm is still the eviction of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and the restoration of the Al Sabah family to the seat of government. But top military officials have acknowledged their special interest in the fate of the Republican Guard.
"That's the unit that he used to take Kuwait. Those are the units that he used in his war with Iran for offensive purposes. They are the heart of the regime," Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said this week.
Cheney said the Republican Guard is not only central to Hussein's military capability but it also underpins his political power. The guard is by far the best-equipped, most-disciplined and fiercely loyal unit of the Iraqi armed forces.
"If the Republican Guard crumbles, I don't think the ground forces in Kuwait would be willing to fight to the last trench," said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who has been briefed by Pentagon officials about the war. "Destroying the Republican Guard could even lead to a collapse of the regime in Baghdad."
Administration officials concede that they remain far from this goal, in spite of more than a week of crushing bombardment from allied warplanes, including the formidable B-52 bomber.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not know yet how much damage allied air strikes have wrought on the guard. Intelligence analysts report that some units have suffered 40% damage, while others appear untouched, Powell said Wednesday.
Military officials have said that the bombardment is problematic because the guard units, which are armed with Soviet T-72 tanks, are dug into steel-reinforced concrete bunkers and spread out over a wide area in southern Iraq and south of Basra in Kuwait.
"They're spread out. They're dug in. They're hiding. They're not standing out there like a building. They're avoiding air attack," Powell told reporters. "They are going to put out dummies to try to deceive you as to their exact locations. . . . They are going to dig in their lines of communication. They are going to put in overhead cover. Those tanks are designed not to be easily destroyed. And so, going after that kind of unit is a much more difficult proposition."
Pilots involved in the night-and-day effort to pound the Republican Guard into submission underscored the difficulty of the task in interviews in Saudi Arabia.
"It's a monstrously big army," said Capt. Jeff Gurney, 32, an F-16A fighter pilot flying strike missions against the guard's network of logistic support. "Basically, when you hit the ground, you're going to get the army someplace."