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Insider : Iraq's Force Is Broken but Unbowed : The Gulf War left Saddam Hussein's military machine sputtering. However, a giant rebuilding effort continues.

August 18, 1992|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Almost 200 of Iraq's Scud missiles remain hidden in basements and garages, its vaunted biological-weapons program remains undiscovered by dogged U.N. inspectors, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continues to spew his bluster at his nervous Mideast neighbors.

But the conventional military machine that once gave muscle to Hussein's threats is broken. It is, according to Defense Department experts, one-quarter to one-third the size and strength of its prewar incarnation, and its remnants are patched together with string and sealing wax. Squeezed by continuing U.N. trade sanctions against Iraq, moreover, it appears to be getting worse by the day.

To the U.S. military, that makes Saddam Hussein a paper tiger. To his neighbors, that makes him a desperado, backed into a corner with no weapons but those of terror. But to his own citizens, Saddam Hussein is still a monster, capable of using his creaking military machine to inflict pain and cruelty.

For the time being, at least, all agree on one prescription for the Iraqi leader and his military: As long as he is in power, only continued economic sanctions will keep Iraq from regaining the military strength that made it a bully of global proportions.

"Over the long term, particularly if the sanctions don't hold, this regime in Baghdad has the potential to be once again threatening to its neighbors," a senior Bush Administration official said last week. "Right now," he added, "it's primarily a threat to its own people."

But Baghdad's moves against its own people--now threatened by a large buildup of forces against the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south--may soon bring Iraqi forces back into contact with those of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf War. Attacks against Iraqi minorities would violate U.N. resolutions and could draw a U.S. military response.

It was confirmed over the weekend that the Pentagon has already dispatched an air command staff to Saudi Arabia, where it would take control of any U.S. air action against the Iraqis.

If that should happen, U.S. defense officials believe the hollowness of Iraq's remaining military and the depth of the demoralization among its troops would quickly become evident.

Using military tactics of intimidation, Hussein's forces appear to have the strength to prevent further progress of the insurgents, said a knowledgeable Pentagon official. But while he "can probably manage his insurgency campaign . . . he's got more than enough on his plate" to try to make good on threats to retake Kuwait.

His force is large enough, however, to draw the United States into a potentially costly fight, another expert said.

"He has troublemaking potential," said Michael Eisenstadt, a Mideast analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "He's in a much-reduced position from before the war in terms of his ability to trouble his neighbors and project power in the region. There's no doubt (that) in any future conflict we could defeat him. But the point is, he could suck us back in, and that's something we just don't want to do."

Hussein's efforts to rebuild his conventional military strength have been titanic, said several knowledgeable experts. Those rebuilding efforts have greatly bolstered a force that ended the war in paralysis and restored Iraq's military to a position of dominance on the Arabian peninsula, experts said. But while there have been successes, there are signs of dismal failure as well.

In the 18 months since U.S. and allied forces pummeled Iraq's military and drove it out of Kuwait, a defense official said, Hussein has ordered a reorganization of his regular army units as well as of the elite Republican Guard.

Fearing coup attempts, the Iraqi president also has banished all those forces to areas at least 60 miles outside Baghdad. And while he has lightened the punch of the regular and Republican Guard units, Hussein has beefed up the Presidential Guard forces that protect him.

The best of Iraq's remaining tanks, personnel carriers and artillery pieces have gone to the estimated 80,000-member Republican Guard, and the best of those have gone to the Presidential Guard.

Iraq's air defense network similarly has been reconstructed with an emphasis on protecting Baghdad, and the command-and-control system that allowed Hussein to launch Scuds during the war is intact in at least a rudimentary form, said a knowledgeable defense official. As long as Hussein's military impotence continues, experts said, biological weapons and Scud missiles pose a particularly potent threat to the region because they are the regime's only means of striking out effectively.

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