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U.S. operation against Iraq underway
The United States has embarked on a strategy of knocking out the air defenses of Iraq one at a time in an effort to pave the way for a major strike against Baghdad's military at a later date.
U.S. aircraft have struck Iraqi air defenses repeatedly in the past few days. Although these seem similar to previous tit-for-tat retaliations after Iraqi air defenses have fired on U.S. air patrols, these strikes are different. Sources indicate that U.S. forces are engaged in an open-ended bombing campaign to systematically destroy Iraq's air defenses, which have been rebuilt in recent weeks with aid from China.
The American effort is aimed at preparing the battlefield for a much larger military operation later that likely will target the rest of the Iraqi military and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the U.S. effort is limited by regional politics right now, particularly the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The United States is trying to avoid triggering a backlash in the Arab world at this time.
Destroying air defenses, known inside the military as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, is the classic first step in any air campaign. The campaign will make it easier for U.S. forces to hit the Iraqi military, particularly in and around Baghdad. The larger U.S. operation will probably be similar in size and scope to Operation Desert Fox in 1998. That operation was believed to have been capable of knocking back Iraq's WMD program by two and a half years; that period has now elapsed, and the Iraqi military is making strides in rebuilding various organizations.
The Bush administration has weighed a major military operation against Iraq for the past several weeks. The current political and security situation suggests a strike would aim to cripple air defenses and then go after Iraq's military infrastructure in order to interrupt its renewed efforts to develop WMD. An attack would likely use retaliation for threats to U.S. aircraft as a pretext. It is unclear when a U.S. attack will take place, but it is fair to say that a strike can come at any time now that the United States is suppressing Iraqi air defenses.
Regional politics have apparently forced the Bush administration to adopt a limited strategy. The situation in Israel and the territories has complicated reactions in the Arab world. As Israel's major ally, the United States is deeply involved in negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and Arab states.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia would probably have to approve of the use of their bases to mount a major military campaign and neither are likely to consent right now. Egypt has opposed a U.S. attack on Iraq; only Kuwait, which U.S. and British jets use as a base of operations, has suggested it would back an operation.
A U.S. air campaign is unlikely to alter Iraq's political leadership. But the United States is running out of options with which to deal with Baghdad. Recent events have left the United States in a relatively weak position in the Persian Gulf.
Russia's veto of U.S.-backed "smart sanctions" last month at the United Nations combined with Washington's continuing attempts to prevent full-scale war between Israelis and Palestinians undercut U.S. influence.
A series of recent reports indicate Iraq is attempting to rebuild its program for making weapons of mass destruction. The program's infrastructure was heavily bombarded in four days of U.S.-U.K air strikes in December 1998 after Iraq turned out U.N. weapons inspectors. Inspectors are not expected to return. Meanwhile, the Iraqi regime has been able to reconstitute elements of its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons development programs, according to intelligence sources.
In addition, Baghdad has recently deployed significant numbers of troops toward Kurdish enclaves in the north, The London Daily Telegraph reported on June 26.
S T R A T F O R: THE GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE COMPANY