Get Ready for a Nasty War in Iraq


Mar 11, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on March 11, 2002.

Saddam Hussein can be expected to react creatively as the United States moves toward war with Iraq. Military force, economic sanctions and other coercive pressure have been used against Baghdad for nearly 12 years. Saddam has applied a mixture of concessions, threats and brutality to offset them.

As the immediacy of the new U.S. threat grows, Baghdad is likely to make token concessions to avoid giving Washington a pretext for war. Saddam enjoys the image of an implacable foe, but he has in fact frequently retreated in the face of serious U.S. pressure.

Allowing United Nations inspectors to return is an obvious first step. If they do, it will be hard for Washington to claim that Saddam is covertly building nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. He has already restored cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and made gestures to the United Nations suggesting that the return of inspectors may be possible.

Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations have made clear that they would support the return of inspectors only if they have teeth. But much of the rest of the world has shown a disturbing willingness to accept a façade of inspections, regardless of effectiveness. An Iraqi charm offensive is in the cards. Saddam will play the victim, claiming to be a target of U.S. imperialism. He will highlight alleged American double standards over Israel's nuclear program and "terrorism" against the Palestinians. Baghdad in the past has skillfully used the promise of major oil contracts and other economic offers to win the goodwill of France and Russia. Now it will redouble these efforts. If fighting starts, the mask of conciliation will be dropped. Saddam will try to strike at the United States and its allies, while seeking to shatter the international and regional alliance arrayed against him. Although Iraq's ability to employ terrorism is limited, it will use whatever means it can to strike U.S. targets and those of allied governments.

Striking at Israel is the more dangerous threat. Iraq has few missiles and they are inaccurate. Even if armed with chemical warheads, they would probably kill few Israelis. But the political risks are much higher. Targeting Israel enables Saddam to claim to be the defender of the Arab people.

If Israel responds—and Saddam will goad Israel, if necessary by using chemical weapons—then any Arab partners in the coalition will face pressure to withdraw their support. Against the United States, Saddam will be cautious with his forces, trying to draw out the American campaign while inflicting as many casualties as possible. He will probably try to avoid risking his best units, hunkering down in cities and dispersing his troops as necessary. Time is on his side. Regional support for U.S. military action against Iraq will be limited at best. Washington will be under pressure to finish the campaign as quickly as possible.

An unusual but politically potent challenge to the United States will come in the form of Saddam's use of the Iraqi people as a shield against attack. Perhaps uniquely in military history, America cares more about the suffering of the enemy regime's people than does the regime itself. Saddam has repeatedly shown that he will allow thousands of his own citizens to die when it suits him. For five years he delayed carrying out the UN oil-for-food arrangement, despite the hardship this imposed, and he refused to disband his weapons programs, allowing international sanctions to continue.

Civilian victimization will include colocating military and civilian targets. Putting command bunkers in hospitals and placing air defense units near schools is something the Iraqi regime has already done in response to U.S. air strikes. It would do so even more systematically if faced with a threat to its very existence.

If Saddam's forces retreated to cities, they might well liquidate potentially disloyal elements. Not only would this involve the death of thousands, it might also spur the United States to engage in dangerous urban warfare. This might prevent some Iraqi deaths but it would increase the toll on America.

These obstacles do not make military action against Iraq impossible, but they increase the political and human cost. The Bush administration cannot afford to wait for these contingencies to unfold before acting.

Washington should quickly move to gain allied support. It must prepare militarily for fighting in cities and for taking out colocated targets. It must also ensure that the American people are ready for sudden and at times gruesome twists likely in a war with Iraq.

The writer directs research in the Center for Middle East Public Policy at RAND. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.