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WAR WITH IRAQ / MILITARY STRATEGY

U.S. Studied Iraqi Leaders to See Who Would Surrender

March 23, 2003|Tony Perry and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

CAMP MATILDA, Kuwait — For months, a Marine officer had been assigned to get inside the mind of the commander of the Iraqi army's 51st Mechanized Division.

Equipped with a dossier on the commander's military record, family background, education, religion and ties to President Saddam Hussein, the Marine predicted his quarry would not stand his ground.

True to profile, the commander and his deputy surrendered to U.S. forces Friday, the Pentagon said. Most of their division had already melted away.

With U.S. and British forces advancing deeper into Iraq, psychological insights and intelligence files are increasingly being put to the test as the U.S. intensifies efforts to induce enemy leaders to lay down their arms.

White House and Pentagon officials have made no secret of their effort to reach out to Republican Guard and Iraqi leaders through speeches, leaflets and radio broadcasts.

But profiling of senior Iraqi officials is also emerging as a key component of the U.S. effort to end the war quickly by finding the right blend of pressure and inducements to persuade the ruling elite to betray the regime.

In a project called "The Understudies," an unusually extensive exercise in military profiling, the 12 officers of the 1st Marine Division were each assigned a key Iraqi commander likely to be encountered on the way to Baghdad.

Role Playing

The officers were provided top-secret dossiers gathered from military and intelligence files. Insights about what motivates the Iraqis -- honor, tribal loyalty, professional pride, patriotism, fear or money -- could be crucial in identifying which threats or promises might persuade an elite commander to defect, officials said.

The Marine officers under the command of Maj. Gen. James Mattis, a Gulf War veteran who ordered the program assembled in August, tried to answer questions that would be key to the U.S.-led offensive: Which Iraqi commanders would fight and what tactics would they use? Which were likely to surrender? Which would use chemical or biological weapons and under what circumstances?

They were also asked to take on the identity of the Iraqi.

The officers were called in periodically to brief Mattis, who peppered them with questions about how they would react if the United States were to use a particular tactic. Several stayed in character, answering in faux accents.

"Some understudies are more theatrical than others," said Maj. Timothy Oliver, who was given the task of studying a commander in the southern region near the border.

The officers expressed disdain for Hussein but regard for his top commanders as professional soldiers, largely schooled in the military tactics of the former Soviet Union.

The Pentagon had no comment Saturday on the status of the 51st Division commanders, whose names were not disclosed, or whether the terms of their surrender included promises to try to persuade other commanders to lay down their arms.

"It's a smart thing to do, if at all possible, to get a couple of guys [to defect] early, so they can spread the word," said former Gen. William Nash, who commanded an armored unit during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "Success begets success.

"We did not have profiles in my day. I think it's a great idea."

Open Communication

U.S. officials have likely studied other key Iraqi officials for clues to their behavior and to determine who might be in a position to influence them, said a former U.S. defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

These may include Saddam's son and heir apparent, Qusai; commanders of Republican Guard divisions and the Special Republican Guard; the head of the Iraqi intelligence service; the head of the General Security Directorate, the Iraqi secret police; and possibly key local officials, such as the police chief in the strategic southern Iraqi city of Basra, the official said.

Senior Pentagon and intelligence officials are orchestrating contacts with members of the ruling clique in an effort to avoid an all-out assault on Baghdad, officials said.

"We are seeing signs of disarray and confusion in the senior levels of the regime as well as lower levels," said a U.S. official. "But it's hard to know how it will go."

One reason that initial U.S. bombing raids did not destroy telephone and electricity services in Baghdad was to keep communication lines open, officials said.

"We have been communicating with the leadership, 'End this now, save your lives, save the Iraqi people's lives,' " Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Saturday.

U.S. officials also are probably trying to use Iraqi exiles, fellow military men in neighboring countries, friends, relatives, classmates, or people from the same tribal or religious group, to negotiate with Iraqi leaders, said former intelligence official Judith Yaphe.

"A lot of the Iraqis in the military are Sunni Arabs who have tribal connections in Saudi [Arabia], in Jordan, in Syria," said Yaphe, a Middle East expert who once played the role of Hussein in a war game.

The Jordanian and Iraqi militaries have particularly close ties, she said.

"If you could get the cooperation of some of these military folks, almost all of whom have connections to these tribal networks [within Iraq] -- they could have influence in ways that could be extraordinarily helpful," Yaphe said. "That could be worth [making an offer of] asylum."

Most important to inducing defections, experts said, is that Iraqi officials must believe that their plight is dire.

"Essentially you say, 'Your choices are surrender or die, but frankly we don't care much either way,' " Allard said. "If we're right, we'll know very soon. If not, stay tuned for the Battle of Baghdad."

*

Perry reported from Kuwait and Efron from Washington. Times staff writers Robin Wright and Bob Drogin also contributed to this report.

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