Saddam's War

It was the usual creepy military parade through downtown Baghdad. Some of Saddam's fedayeen ("men of sacrifice") were dressed in dazzling white uniforms--"the color of a shroud, because we expect to die," explained a 24-year-old fedayeen leader. More jarring were the fedayeen garbed in the familiar tan camouflage of the United States Army. Saddam has ordered thousands of uniforms identical, down to the last detail, to those worn by U.S. and British troopers. The plan: to have Saddam's men, posing as Western invaders, slaughter Iraqi citizens while the cameras roll for Al-Jazeera and the credulous Arab press.

Delusional though he may be, Saddam knows he cannot militarily defeat the American armed forces. But he can try to delay and deceive even after the bombs start falling. He is counting on staying alive until political pressure inside and outside the United States forces President George W. Bush to call off the dogs. Saddam's survival strategy is a long shot, and probably hopeless. Judging from the subdued but steely resolve he showed last week at his press conference, Bush appears determined to remove the Iraqi strongman, no matter what. But Saddam has every reason to believe, from watching street demonstrations around the world on CNN as well as following the deliberations of the U.N. Security Council, that his stalling tactics can sway international opinion. And he has an all-too-real chance of turning the invasion of Iraq into a bloody nightmare.

Saddam's best allies are time and space, deceit and poison. He will do whatever he can to slow the march on Baghdad, then turn his capital into "a Mesopotamian Stalingrad," says Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, referring to the World War II city battle that claimed a million German and Russian lives. While American war planners are unsure about the precise details of Saddam's defense, it is possible to map out the Iraqi strongman's most likely moves and to ponder his nastiest surprises.

As the U.S. forces push north out of Kuwait, they may encounter their first serious resistance at An Nasiriya, a town on the Euphrates River near Basra in southern Iraq. According to a former Arab intelligence officer, Iraqi officials have ordered Iraqi Army troops to dress in civilian clothes to fight the attacking Americans.

U.S. intelligence does not expect Saddam's regular Army, which consists of some 300,000 demoralized, frightened conscripts, to put up much of a struggle. The Iraqis remember the last confrontation with American B-52s and armored columns. "This generation faced the U.S. Army in Kuwait," says the former Arab intelligence official. "Their friends died in 1991." The liberation of southern Iraq will unleash a wave of score-settling that could bog down the Americans on the way to Baghdad, and Saddam may flood the Mesopotamian plain to further slow the U.S. advance.

Saddam's elite Republican Guard, some 60,000 troops, could stand and fight. More likely, Saddam will pull his best soldiers back into Baghdad. He has already moved a 10,000-man division of Guardsmen back from the city of Mosul in the north to guard his nearby hometown, Tikrit. The United States will try to rattle Saddam's defenders into surrender with a "shock and awe" air campaign, 3,000 precision bombs in the first 48 hours. And Saddam will try to inspire his troops to be good martyrs by threatening to kill them himself.

The battle for hearts and minds has already begun. U.S. psychological-warfare specialists, based at Central Command headquarters in Qatar, routinely bombard the Iraqi troops with propaganda. "Leave now and go home," read one of 420,000 leaflets dropped over southern Iraq last Tuesday. "Watch your children learn, grow and prosper." If war comes, CENTCOM psy-warriors will take over the Iraqi airwaves and broadcast that resistance is futile. The CIA is already trying to infiltrate Saddam's officer corps, offering cash and other incentives. "The commanders who carry out Saddam's last orders," warns a senior U.S. intelligence official, "will be killed or tried as war criminals."

Hated by his own subjects, Saddam has to hope that his people loathe the American invaders even more. Iraqi citizens have been given arms to fight house to house. Most will likely hide or surrender. But not the 15,000-man Special Republican Guard, made up largely of Saddam's fellow tribesmen, nor Saddam's Special Security Organization, a force of some 5,000 thugs and torturers who will be strung up by mobs if captured, and thus have every incentive to fight to the last man.

Iraqi workers have been digging trenches all around Baghdad. Some intelligence sources believe that Saddam will order them filled with oil and set afire. The picture is almost medieval, a "wall of flame" around the besieged citadel. Saddam hopes to dull America's technological edge: a thick pall of oily smoke would interfere with the laser guidance system used on --some American bombs. (Far more bombs, however, are aimed by satellite, which would be unaffected.)

American warplanes and cruise missiles will try to kill Saddam on the first night and every day and night thereafter. Moving from bunker to bunker and using doubles, he may escape. Aiming precision bombs and exotic high-tech weaponry to destroy Saddam's communications, American air power could cut off the Iraqi leader from his men. But isolated, surrounded only by sycophants, Saddam may not know he has been defeated until American soldiers kick in his door. That could take weeks, and if Saddam can slip out of Baghdad and go underground, the hunt could go on for months.

The most pressing--and disturbing--question is whether and when Saddam will use weapons of mass destruction. Saddam may want to hold off, at least for a while. If he uses bio-chem weapons, he "crosses a very important psychological threshold," points out Brookings's Pollack. The Iraqi leader could no longer claim in the court of world opinion that he has no WMD; he would, in effect, be justifying the American invasion. U.S. intelligence officials are sharply divided over Saddam's intentions. In some ways, they say, chem-bio weapons are more of a scary bluff than a true threat. Properly trained and equipped troops, especially those riding in airtight tanks, can slip unscathed through a toxic cloud. Still, Saddam may use the WMD he is said to possess, and poison gas can cause chaos and possibly panic among support troops in rear areas. Even the most gung-ho soldiers could be unnerved by a gas attack as they waited to ford a river or crash through a berm.

Conceivably, Saddam could strike first. In a CENTCOM war game staged last year, a retired U.S. Marine general playing the role of Saddam created havoc by using Arab dhows plying the Persian Gulf to deliver suicide bombs against American troopships before they ever reached port. (The war game had to be stopped and started over; the Marine general, accused of playing unfairly, walked out in disgust.) It's too late for Saddam to try this particular trick, but he could create mayhem by unleashing biological agents in the American bases (Camp New York, Camp New Jersey, Camp Pennsylvania) that sprawl over much of northern Kuwait. Some intelligence sources believe that Saddam possesses both Scud missiles and unmanned aerial drones that could deliver WMD.

The United States has limited defenses against a germ-warfare Pearl Harbor. Pre-emptive airstrikes are not the answer. True, American warplanes operating out of bases in the Gulf and flying off five (soon to be six) aircraft carriers can crisscross Iraq at will. Iraqi air defenses will be lucky to shoot down more than a few planes. NEWSWEEK has learned that the Pentagon tested, only days ago, a new double-warhead bomb that can slice through concrete and steel containers and, an instant later, incinerate their poisonous contents. But precise weapons require precise intelligence, and Air Force target planners complain that the intelligence community has yet to identify the locations of Iraqi WMD storage sites.

Saddam is hardly above gassing his own people and pretending that the Americans--the "Crusaders and Jews and infidels"--are to blame. Many Arabs watching Al-Jazeera would believe him. Antiair-craft batteries and tanks and artillery have been placed beneath and beside mosques, hospitals and schools. Even the most accurate American bombs could produce atrocious TV images. To combat Saddam's psychological warfare and refute disinformation, CENTCOM has created a "rapid-response team." CENTCOM will try to provide photographic proof to back up its claims, releasing footage from gun cameras and other weapons systems as well as before-and-after photographs from satellites.

Truth may not be an adequate defense. The longer a war drags on, the more the casualties mount, the greater the risk that Saddam will really lash out--say, by lobbing a biological weapon at Israel--the greater the pressure on Bush to end the war. It is not hard to imagine the president caught in an increasingly uncomfortable bind. Shocked by television images of human carnage, demonstrators will take to the streets at home and abroad. Politicians will call on Bush to get it over with, to declare victory and go home. The military, on the other hand, will want to slow down once U.S. forces reach a still-resistant Baghdad. The U.S. Army tries to avoid urban warfare. America loses its high-tech edge in cities; helicopters are vulnerable to street fighters armed with crude rocket-propelled grenades, as the movie "Black Hawk Down" vividly displayed. Baghdad is vast--2,000 square miles, almost one-and-a-half times the size of New York. Fighting block by block could take weeks, with casualties running high.

Bush does not seem inclined to back down from any fight. But Saddam has reason to question American staying power. In the first gulf war, when American bombs wiped out a bunker filled with sleeping civilians, killing more than 400, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell ordered an end to the bombing of Baghdad. When American warplanes created grisly images by bombing Iraqis fleeing Kuwait along the "Highway of Death," President George H.W. Bush, at Powell's recommendation, ended the war--prematurely, as it turned out. Bush's son wants to finish the job, but at what cost?

Saddam has learned a few lessons from that first war. According to defectors at the time, the Iraqi chieftain told Baath Party leaders after the gulf war that he made a mistake by releasing Western hostages before the fighting began. This time, he may try to hold Western reporters now in Baghdad, or relief workers, or even U.N. weapons inspectors (the Unmovic team keeps a large helicopter at the ready for quick evacuation). Saddam will almost surely use "human shields," including some Europeans who have unwisely volunteered for the job.

Most Saddam watchers assume that, ultimately, the ruler of Baghdad, who has stayed in power for three decades, wants to survive and believes that he can. But what if he becomes convinced that he is doomed after all? Does he have an apocalyptic plan to bring down Iraq with him? American spy satellites have seen Iraqi troops move tons of explosives into Iraqi oilfields. Saddam is apparently preparing to torch the fields, unless American paratroopers get there first. In 1991, Saddam blew up about 700 oil wells in Kuwait, creating an ecological disaster and costing about $40 billion to control the fires and cap the wells. Iraq has 1,500 wells.

Saddam could decide to take Baghdad with him. One Arab intelligence officer interviewed by NEWSWEEK spoke of "the green mushroom" over Baghdad--the modern-day caliph bidding a grotesque bio-chem farewell to the land of the living alongside thousands of his subjects as well as his enemies. Saddam wants to be remembered. He has the means and the demonic imagination. It is up to U.S. armed forces to stop him before he can achieve notoriety for all time.