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Schwarzkopf Takes Center Stage and Stars in a Low-Key Assessment of Conflict

January 31, 1991|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — For more than an hour he held center stage, a one-man performer before a rapt audience, and in calm, confident tones detailed the methodical destruction of an enemy for whom he felt little admiration.

This was the man who relaxes at night listening to tapes of geese on the wing and loons on a lake and has a genius IQ level of 170. But for his televised assessment of two weeks of war--a performance watched by millions in the Arab world, including presumably Iraqi President Saddam Hussein--the 6-foot-3 commander of allied forces, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, was every bit the warrior, relishing what even the skeptics surely would call a spectacularly successful performance against the world's fourth-largest army.

"I'm going to show you a picture of the luckiest man in Iraq on this particular day," he told journalists in Riyadh as a video showed a vehicle speeding across a bridge, right through the targeting cross hairs of a U.S. attack plane. "Keep your eye on the cross hairs. . . . Lookit here. And now through the rear-view mirror. . . . " The bomb hit, the bridge disintegrated and the rider sped on to safety.

Schwarzkopf, 56, a gruff, amiable ex-paratrooper who looks as though he was born in camouflage fatigues, gave a performance that would have done justice to James Cagney.

He was stern at times, witty at others, always in command, his mood swinging from anger over Iraq's treatment of POWs to impatience with one journalist's rambling--"Is that a statement or a question?" he snapped--to self-assurance that the war is progressing as he planned.

When someone asked if reports were true that he had overruled a recommendation that Navy Seals would have been better suited to deal with the oil spilling into the Persian Gulf than the pilots who bombed the manifolds to stop the flow, he shot back: "Normally in response to a question like that, I would say that that report contains some inaccuracies. However, reverting to my old style, I would describe that report as bovine scatology, better referred to by the troops as B.S."

"The Bear," as West Point colleagues still call him, stood with his hands on the podium at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, an American flag to his right, a Saudi Arabian flag to his left, and used charts, maps and video to make his case that the allies are inexorably grinding down an inferior enemy.

His demeanor was so confident that when asked if he would pursue the Iraqi army into Iraq, he did not defer to the White House, as is the custom of military commanders, but said instead, "Let's wait and see."

Schwarzkopf, a two-tour Vietnam veteran whose father helped set up Iran's imperial police from 1942 to 1948, displayed little respect for the enemy he had been sent 7,000 miles to fight. The Iraqi air force, he said, is running from every potential fight, the Iraqi navy is getting chewed up, the Iraqi army's main military effort thus far had been merely to suffer a terrible pounding that included 500,000 pounds of bombs dropped Tuesday and Wednesday alone on the elite Republican Guard.

By implication, President Hussein and the Iraqi leadership do not measure up to the military men, such as Civil War Gen. William Sherman, whom Schwarzkopf has studied and lionized for their valor and conduct of warfare.

The commander of Operation Desert Storm raised his voice only once, when asked about Iraq's treatment of allied war prisoners, who have been shown on Iraqi television after apparently being beaten. Baghdad has said the men were moved to strategic military sites as human shields.

"As I said," Schwarzkopf began evenly, "the International Red Cross has inspected our POW camps." Then his hands closed tighter on the podium and his voice grew angry: "I challenge, I challenge the Iraqis right now to do the same damn thing in their POW camps. . . . " He quickly took another question and his tone again became controlled and assured.

Even as Schwarzkopf spoke, Radio Baghdad was claiming a major victory in Iraq's first offensive operation of the war, having taken the abandoned town of Khafji on an undefended road six miles inside Saudi Arabia. Schwarzkopf dismissed the action as insignificant. Well, someone asked, what about Iraq's ability to take the hardest blows the coalition had to offer--and still Iraq had not collapsed militarily.

"The best is yet to come," the general replied and, turning on his heels, strode off the stage and back to the war.

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