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Home > News > Columnists > Colonel ( Dr) Anil Athale

War in Iraq: Three Scenarios

March 20, 2003

With the launch of Cruise missiles and air attacks, the war in Iraq seems to have begun.

Unlike the 1991 war when the aim was to liberate Kuwait, this time the Americans have made up their mind to oust President Saddam Hussein and effect a regime change in Iraq. The reason why Saddam survived the 1991 war could well be the American need to preserve him as a check on the growing power of revolutionary Iran.

This time around with Iran slowly turning 'moderate' the Americans see no such need. In 1991 Saddam miscalculated and was slow to realise that after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Third World had lost its maneuvering space.  This time around, he failed to see the radical changes that have come about in American thinking post 9/11 and also the virtual alliance of US and Iran in the war against the Taliban.


The best case for the US is if the Iraqi army and population rises in revolt against Saddam and welcomes the Americans as liberators. This will keep the damage and loss low and there will be a surge of support for President Bush. The world loves victors.

The Iraqi army consists of four autonomous corps or a total of 23 divisions, representing some 460,000 men at full mobilisation. Estimates show that an average 23 percent of the annual Iraqi national budget has been allocated to the armed forces for the past 30 years. In reality, the Iraqi army exists mostly on paper. The latest estimates show that the army at present has no more than eight divisions at full strength within the Fourth Army Corps, nicknamed Saladin. A further 10 divisions, at less than a third of their full strength, are kept in reserve for rotation purposes.

Theoretically, all the 8,000 or so professional soldiers who provide the backbone of the army are loyal Ba'athists. But Saddam knows that a Ba'ath Party membership card is no guarantee against betrayal. During the past 10 years over 40 of his generals have defected, among them his own son-in-law.

The conscripts, most of them Shi'ites, have even less love for Saddam. They fought during the Iran-Iraq war because they were persuaded that the Iranian mullahs wished to conquer Iraq and turn it into a colony for 'the Persians.' Now, it is unlikely that many Shi'ites would wish to die in order to keep Saddam in power. Also, Saddam is now perceived as a loser whereas in 1980 and 1990 he was looked at as a potential winner.

This is the best case scenario for the Americans. If it happens then the war will be over in days or at the most a few weeks.

The second scenario is that the Iraqi army resists and Saddam Hussein launches terrorist attacks on the US or uses chemical or biological weapons (it is believed he does not have nuclear weapons), with or without the help of Al Qaeda. A variation of this theme would be that independent of the Iraqis, Osama bin Laden's followers launch a major terrorist strike against American targets. Then President Bush would  be proved right and France, Germany etc will look rather silly. There would be a surge of support for the Americans, who would then be free of all constraints and may even use ‘small' nuclear weapons against Iraq. There will be less concern for civilian casualties. In this case Saddam will be overthrown and most of Iraq will be destroyed.

The worst case for Americans is if the Iraqi army does not collapse, offers stiff resistance causing heavy loss of American lives and large scale Iraqi civilian deaths. The fighting gets prolonged, affecting the world economy adversely. The Americans get bogged down in street fighting in Baghdad and American public opinion becomes vocal and effective against the war, just like in 1968 against the Vietnam war. But for this to happen Iraqi morale has to hold and Saddam has to show moderation and not use chemical or biological weapons. Restraint would have to be exercised not just by Saddam but also Al Qaeda.


Unlike the first Gulf War, where the Americans concentrated on neutralisation of the Iraqi army, specially the Republican Guard, this time the aim to ensure speedy collapse of the Iraqi State. This analyst had correctly predicted, (one week before the operations in 1991) the airborne assault on Al Qurna and Al Kunetra by the 82nd and 101 Airborne divisions and the dash by the 3rd US Army (made famous by General Patton's dash across France in 1944) to link up and turn the flanks on the Iraqi army deployed around Basra.

This time around since the American objective is the speedy collapse of Iraq, it may well plan to make a dash for Baghdad at the very initial stage!  The Americans may well land the 82nd, 101 and the first Air Cavalry divisions in Baghdad in the very initial stage of the war. Dashing across the desert the 3rd US army tanks are capable of linking up with them in less than 48 hours starting from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

The total American control of air space makes it a risk-free operation. Advancing troops will just bypass any pockets of resistance. All this while British forces in Kuwait will do a holding job against Basra-based forces.

Taking a leaf out of Indian books (like the 1971 Bangladesh operations where the fall of Dacca led to collapse of the Pakistan army ) the capture of Baghdad may well trigger the collapse of Iraqi resistance.

Many military analysts have termed the attack on Iraq as a ‘gamble,' but should the first scenario materialise then it would be called merely a calculated risk!

But should the war go out of hand and last long, both the Iraqi and American people are destined to pay a heavy price.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale has a doctorate from Poona University on Middle East and South Asia security linkages

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Number of User Comments: 17

Sub: Too few US troops

Dear Colonel, To me, it looks like the US is going in with too few troops for invasion. Conventional wisdom suggests a 4 to 1 ...

Posted by Srinivas Bharadwaj

Sub: column and columnist

Column is good.Only rediff should correct that Poona University name has been changed to University of Pune.

Posted by Jaraj

Sub: War in Iraq: Three Scenarios

The scenario of Anglo-American soldiers marching into Iraqi cities and being welcomed as liberators hasn't happened...

Posted by me

Sub: War in Iraq

What world should understand that to the muslim population all over the world will see American led invation of Muslim territory and wealth as infliction ...

Posted by Lal Mistry

Sub: Silly?

"A variation of this theme would be that independent of the Iraqis, Osama bin Laden's followers launch a major terrorist strike against American targets. Then ...

Posted by Pilid



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