The Secret War

Know thine enemy is a cardinal rule of war. Ignorance was costly for American soldiers fighting guerrillas in Vietnam. Before plunging into Iraq, U.S. psychological-warfare operators studied certain cultural stereotypes. One was that young Arab toughs cannot tolerate insults to their manhood. So, as American armored columns pushed down the road to Baghdad, 400-watt loudspeakers mounted on Humvees would, from time to time, blare out in Arabic that Iraqi men are impotent. The Fedayeen, the fierce but undisciplined and untrained Iraqi irregulars, could not bear to be taunted. Whether they took the bait or saw an opportunity to attack, many Iraqis stormed out of their concealed or dug-in positions, pushing aside their human shields in some cases--to be--slaughtered by American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. "What you say is many times more important than what you do in this part of the world," says a senior U.S. psy-warrior.

American armed forces have long tried to overwhelm the enemy. Outsmarting them is a relatively new idea. "We're going to mess with their heads," a senior Pentagon official told NEWSWEEK before the war began. But even the most gung-ho Bush administration officials were surprised by the suddenness of Saddam's fall. So were the commanders on the ground. Inside a drab, dun-colored tent within a drab, dun-colored warehouse at Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, resides the "brain" of the American war machine, the Joint Operations Center, the "JOC." The tent (surrounded by barbed wire) is stuffed full of high-tech equipment, computers and giant plasma screens that show the battlefield in real time. The commanders in the JOC kept waiting for the battle that never came.

Surely, they figured, once the invaders reached the outskirts of Baghdad, Saddam would unleash his arsenal of chem-bio weapons. But there was little organized resistance. Senior officers at their laptops watched in silent amazement as an American armored column raced straight into the heart of Baghdad at 40 miles an hour. Col. Steven Pennington, the operations chief on duty at the time, muttered aloud, "Like a hot knife through warm butter." (Gloating is frowned upon in the JOC. Cheers broke out only twice during the three-week war: for the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch and when the statue of Saddam was pulled down on Wednesday afternoon. Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, came by to hand out cigars.)

Freedom, at least for a time, may bring chaos and civil war to Iraq. Lawlessness (or "untidiness," as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the mayhem and looting in Baghdad) will reign until American troops can restore order and the Iraqis can form some kind of government. The sight of mobs stealing everything that moved from Baghdad's hospitals, right down to the operating tables, was not encouraging. As a grand strategy to protect America from terrorism and transform the Middle East, the liberation of Iraq remains a bold, high-risk --gamble. But as a show of military prowess, Operation Iraqi Freedom has been an astonishing success.

The keys were the speed, nimbleness and precision of U.S. forces--and the utter ineptitude of the Iraqi Army. Thanks to the journalists embedded with the Coalition ground forces, television viewers saw the bravery and discipline of U.S. and British soldiers. What they could not see was the clever secret war fought by Special Operations forces and the CIA, and the devastating aerial bombardment that flattened Saddam's best soldiers before they could fire a shot.

Other despots watched America's swift behemoth, the Bush administration hopes, with suitable shock and awe. While marching on to Damascus or Tehran remains, for the time being, a neoconservative fantasy, Bush aides are happy to inject a little insecurity into Iraq's neighboring tyrants. Certainly, if they fight as badly as Saddam, they are doomed.

Saddam's only prayer was to exact so many casualties that the United States would back off. This was never a realistic hope: President George W. Bush was clearly determined to eliminate Saddam, whatever the cost. But privately, administration officials worried that the price in American soldiers could be high. Saddam could have slowed and bled the invaders any number of ways. He could have blown the numerous bridges an advancing army must cross on the road to Baghdad. He could have destroyed dams and flooded plains, funneling armored columns into artillery ambushes. He could have attacked the enormous traffic jam that inevitably formed as the Coalition forces pushed off on D-Day or as the forces bunched up at bridgeheads. He could have created an inferno (and an economic disaster) by igniting oil wells in southern Iraq. He could have rained poison gas on American troops. Despite ample time to prepare, he did none of these.

Why? About two weeks into the war, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered one explanation: "Either he [Saddam] is dead or he's alive, and the world's worst general." Intelligence officers were still debating Saddam's fate late last week; intercepted radio traffic suggested that some of his lieutenants thought he was dead, but he might have fled to another country or have been holed up in his hometown of Tikrit. It's still possible that Saddam was killed by the "decapitation strike" on the Iraqi leadership on the first night of the war or the one in Mansour last week. If he survived, he might have been injured or unhinged. In any case, after three decades of shooting the messenger, he was not likely to hear bad news from the sycophants around him.

Saddam ran his military the way Stalin ran the Red Army. Local commanders took the initiative at the risk of a firing squad. The wiser course was to wait for orders from the top. But communications were poor to nonexistent between the regime and its shattered armies in the field. The Iraqis knew enough to fear American warplanes circling overhead, high-tech vultures looking for an electronic signal. To turn on a cell phone was to invite a smart bomb on one's head. As the bombing intensified, the Iraqis were reduced to communicating by bicycle messenger.

Saddam's commanders were essentially clueless about the progress of the American advance. TV viewers in the United States were amused and appalled by the ecstatic lies of Saddam's minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. How could "Baghdad Bob" possibly declare that the American "criminals" and "stooges" were being crushed and humiliated--even as the tanks of the Third Infantry Division were rolling up the streets of Baghdad, visible to the world on --CNN? But one high-ranking U.S. officer suggested that al-Sahaf may not have been spouting mere agitprop. Living and working in Saddam's never-never land, Saddam's top flunkies may have been genuinely ignorant about the progress of the American invaders.

American commanders, by contrast, have never been so well equipped to cut through the fog of war. As the war began, General Franks declared that Operation Iraqi Freedom would be "a campaign unlike any other." It was a surprising boast coming from a low-key officer known to dislike the swagger of his predecessor, Gen. Norman (Stormin' Norman) Schwarzkopf. Franks was regarded as a "grunt's general," not a high flier or a maverick or even a particularly creative leader. But the war plan he hammered out, after a lot of probing questioning from Rumsfeld, was inventive and freewheeling.

Stealth and speed were critical. Special Operations forces and the CIA played a still shadowy but vital role in Operation Iraqi Freedom. A senior CENTCOM official spoke to NEWSWEEK about the military's "inoculation strategy," which boiled down to killing or disabling Saddam's forces before they could wreak havoc. Secret operators roamed Iraq for months before the war. Some were Arabic, many were Hispanic disguised to look like Arabs and some darkened their faces and beards with dye. They performed essential reconnaissance, like measuring water levels so that CENTCOM planners could gauge the scale of flooding if a dam was breached.

Bribery was an effective weapon. Large cash payments persuaded some oilfield operators to shut down wells so that they could not be set afire. Surprise attacks were even more important. Military officials hinted at commando raids to stop the Iraqis from blowing bridges and dams. The night before the war, Navy SEALs seized a key Persian Gulf oil platform, a kind of giant gas station for fueling tankers. Sneaking up in the dark by boat, the commandos overwhelmed the sleeping guards before they could shoot back or detonate high explosives. According to one CENTCOM source, the ground invasion was moved up 36 hours when intelligence officials reported that Saddam had ordered his lackeys to torch the southern oilfields.

In many cases psychological warfare was enough to spook the Iraqis into surrendering--or blundering into a trap. American soldiers found the roads around Baghdad lined with empty Iraqi vehicles and abandoned uniforms. Frightened Iraqi Army officers surrendered by waving leaflets, dropped by U.S. psy-war operators. The last line read in Arabic: "Don't let the destiny of Saddam's regime become your destiny." Small American and British Special Forces teams went "quail hunting," according to an intelligence source. They would stage harassing raids to flush out Saddam's soldiers--to get them moving, right into the kill boxes of bombers flying overhead. CENTCOM made sure to bomb various Baath Party headquarters around the clock, to keep Saddam's men from sleeping.

Supersecret sniper teams were operating in Baghdad itself, looking for leadership targets. Saddam may have made a fatal mistake by showing his defiant tour of the streets on Iraqi TV. Intelligence analysts were able to determine that he was walking about Mansour, an upper-class enclave near downtown. (The timing of the film was unclear; the men were wearing warm winter clothes; on the other hand, smoke loomed in the background, suggesting that the bombing had begun.) The CIA flooded the area with agents, one of whom reported spotting Saddam and his entourage entering a house last Monday. Less than an hour later there was a large crater where the house had been standing, thanks to four bunker busters dropped by a B-1 bomber.

Franks's ground commanders were given extraordinary latitude to make their own decisions. Invasions have historically been highly synchronized and orchestrated affairs. The fabled "left hook" in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait in 1991 was actually a ponderous advance, moving at the speed of a bicycle (less than 10mph on average). A better model for Operation Iraqi Freedom was the German blitzkrieg across northern France in 1940. The Panzer divisions were not told to march 25 miles and stop for the night, like armies of old. They were simply commanded to head west until they reached --the sea. By the same token, the Third Infantry Division and the I Marine Expeditionary Force were told, in effect, to head for Baghdad and get there as fast as possible, any way they could. The concept was to stay one step ahead of Saddam, to overrun his defenses before he could deliver orders or know where the Americans would strike next.

The commanders were able to see the battlefield and talk to each other in ways never before experienced in the history of war. Spy satellites, unmanned drones equipped with cameras, and orbiting JSTARS, planes with high-resolution downward-looking radar, streamed information not just to the JOC in Qatar but directly to the individual units in the field. The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, once dumbly remote from one another, were models of "jointness," as the military calls its long-sought-after (and rarely achieved) goal of cooperation between the services.

For many years, instant battlefield communication was a fiction of the movies. Just a decade ago, an Army grunt who tried to call in an airstrike from a Navy carrier could have been long dead before the bombs ever arrived on target. Orders crept up and down separate chains of command. Indeed, during Operation Desert Storm, the Navy's "air tasking order" for bombing runs had to be printed and flown out to carriers each evening. It could not be delivered electronically. In the first gulf war, targeting a cruise missile to hit a specific building in Baghdad required about three days. In this war, the interval between a tip from a spy on the ground to a bomb on target was about 45 minutes.

Tanks have not gotten faster since the Abrams M1A1 was designed to fight the Soviet Army in Europe 25 years ago. But what slows down an armored division like the Third Infantry Division is not the tanks, which can travel as fast as 50mph on a highway, but the logistics tail, and especially the heavy artillery that must be dragged along. To make the Third Infantry Division capable of greater speed, CENTCOM planners stripped it down. In Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Barry McCaffrey's 24th Mechanized Division was supported by nine brigades of artillery. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Third Infantry Division set out with less than one ninth the number of howitzers and multiple rocket launchers. It is notable that Franks, an old artillery man, did the cutting.

--The retired generals "embedded in TV studios," as Vice President Dick Cheney dryly and scornfully described them last week, criticized CENTCOM for going into battle dangerously light. With McCaffrey leading the chorus, the old Army hands feared an Iraqi counterattack against the Americans' thinly guarded supply lines. These gulf-war veterans could not see the whole picture, however. They failed to grasp the transformation of air power against ground forces.

Operation Iraqi freedom drew one major lesson from the war in Afghanistan. Air power can now substitute for artillery. The latest weapons can seek and destroy enemy armor with devastating precision. For the first time, the Air Force dropped "tank buster" bombs dispensing heat-seeking bomblets that float down by parachute, sniffing for tanks and then hammering them with munitions designed to penetrate their vulnerable topsides. The military is not yet sure how many Iraqi armored vehicles it destroyed, but the number is likely to reach well into the hundreds, possibly thousands.

The carnage happened off screen. While TV viewers were watching American soldiers bogged down by sandstorms and suicide attacks, the Air Force and Navy were obliterating whole Republican Guard divisions (sometimes with mega 8,500-pound bombs). At the White House, President Bush knew the real story. "He wasn't reading the papers and watching TV, he was hearing Tommy Franks say, 'Look, we're kicking some butt'," says a White House aide. An Air Force general briefing the president's national-security team watched as the TV talking heads discussed "softening up" the Republican Guard with airstrikes. "We're not softening them up, we're killing them," the general said. By the time the Third Infantry Division reached the Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad, only about a dozen Iraqi tanks came out to fight. They were quickly annihilated in the one tank-on-tank battle of the war.

Barring a savage last stand in Tikrit, Operation Iraqi Freedom has become largely detective work. CENTCOM supplied its troops with decks of cards identifying Saddam and 54 of his top lieutenants (Saddam, naturally, was the Ace of Spades). A Syrian official with close ties to the Iraqi regime suggested to NEWSWEEK that Saddam & Co. may have just gone to ground to wage a guerrilla war against the American occupiers--with some help, he added, from Syria and Iran. The CIA was disturbed when the files of Saddam's secret police in Baghdad were emptied--either by looters or by fleeing torturers.

The real intelligence prize is to find Saddam's arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. Do they really exist? Last Saturday, Amir al Sadi, Saddam's chief scientific adviser, became the first face on the playing cards to turn himself in. Al Sadi steadfastly maintained that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. But intelligence officials remain convinced that secret caches will turn up (and that al Sadi can be persuaded to help find them). One may be hidden in a network of eight to 10 bunkers seized by Special Forces, who have been in the western Iraqi desert for weeks looking for Scud missiles and WMD. The bunkers are so heavily booby-trapped that the soldiers have had to send to the United States for sophisticated equipment to defuse and clear explosives.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces continue to find all sorts of dark treasure. Every Iraqi school searched--more than 100--contained a weapons depot. In one Baghdad school, Marines unearthed scores of black leather vests stuffed with explosives and ball bearings. Empty hangers suggested that some of the lethal vests were on the backs of would-be suicide bombers. At one checkpoint, soldiers arrested 59 men carrying $630,000 and letters offering rewards for killing U.S. soldiers.

But the oddest discovery came in the abandoned mansion of Tariq Aziz, Saddam's deputy prime minister and his longtime emissary to the West. Aziz must have liked his trips abroad. His house was full of old copies of Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan, bottles of Dakkar Noir and Obsession cologne, more than 50 American movies on DVD ("Sleepless in Seattle," "The Godfather"). Then there was a Princeton Review test-preparation book, titled "Cracking the GMAT," marked with notes in the margins. Was Aziz planning on applying to American graduate school? There are some things about the enemy that are just unknowable.

In the April 21 article "The Secret War," we mistakenly reported that the 24th Mechanized Division was supported in Desert Storm by nine brigades of artillery. It was supported by nine battalions of artillery. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.

Join the Discussion