U.S. sees some strength in Iraq’s military
Associated Press Armed volunteers wear banners in support of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in a military parade in Baghdad on Friday.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Iraqi military isn’t what it used to be, but it still has some punch.

Enough punch that an Afghanistan-style proxy war, using insurgent groups backed by U.S. airstrikes and small numbers of special forces, probably wouldn’t topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials said.

Unlike the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, Iraq has a large standing army, modern air defenses and short-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles. U.S. intelligence agencies also believe Iraq has stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.

Iraq’s military capabilities became a more pressing question this week with comments by Secretary of State Colin Powell that President Bush is considering a “regime change” and “the most serious set of options one might imagine” for dealing with Saddam.

With between 350,000 and 400,000 troops, Iraq’s military is only about 40 percent as large as it was before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi occupiers out of Kuwait and routed much of Saddam’s army, then the fourth largest in the world.

Iraq’s military is now geared toward fighting insurgents and keeping Saddam in power, U.S. officials said. Before the Gulf War, its prime function was to make Iraq a regional power.

It “remains capable of defeating more poorly armed internal opposition groups and threatening Iraq’s neighbors,” CIA Director George Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee this week.

Rebel forces aren’t strong enough to take on the Iraqi army without U.S. ground forces, experts say. The Iraqi National Congress, a London-based opposition group that seeks international support to overthrow Saddam, is regarded as unreliable by many in Washington.

The Bush administration has been engaged in an internal debate over whether and how to strike Iraq, with the aim of deposing Saddam and ending the country’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

Inside Iraq, many of Saddam’s regular army units are arrayed in the north and southeastern parts of the country to keep down opposition.

Kurds, protected by an umbrella of U.S. and British jets enforcing a no-fly zone, have set up safe enclaves in northern Iraq. The Iraqi military has largely defeated the southern Shiite Muslim insurgency despite a second no-fly zone in that region. U.S. warplanes patrolling the flight interdiction zones regularly bomb Iraqi air defenses that target them.

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Many of Iraq’s best troops in the Republican Guard remain closer to Baghdad as Saddam’s private guards.

Iraq’s equipment is largely of pre-1990, Warsaw Pact vintage. Iraq has about 2,000 tanks, including a few hundred relatively modern T-72s, and a few hundred jet fighters and interceptors, defense officials said.

It’s unclear how effectively maintained they are. U.N. sanctions, in force since Saddam sent troops into Kuwait in August 1990, have made spare parts hard to get.

Iraq’s weapons program is a wild card in any U.S. effort to overthrow him. If threatened personally, he may use biological or chemical weapons, either on Israel or U.S. forces.

The CIA is authorized to try to destabilize Saddam’s government. Most of Saddam’s advisers and military commanders are loyal, however, partly because he has executed most of the others. Thus, fomenting a palace coup is regarded as unlikely.

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