They believe President Saddam's strategy is to keep raising the stakes in his confrontation with the US, confident that President Bush could not send troops to repeat the Desert Storm campaign and that Iraq could withstand a limited air assault. Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish spokesman, said Iraqi troops between the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq have been heavily reinforced since mid-July and are well positioned to strike into Kurdistan.
It is unlikely that President Saddam would seek to reconquer the whole of Kurdistan, but would cut off Arbil or one of the important Kurdish cities to show the world that he has regained his strength since his defeat. Attacks by American, British and French planes overflying northern Iraq probably would not be enough to stop an Iraqi army offensive.
According to a detailed report in the New York Times yesterday, President Bush and his National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, approved a plan on Thursday for UN inspectors to demand entry to Baghdad's Ministry of Industrialisation as part of their mandate to look for evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
If they were denied entry then US carrier-based aircraft would immediately bomb the building. They would then repeat the process by demanding access to the Defence Ministry. US officials were quoted by Patrick Tyler, the New York Times reporter, as saying the timing of the confrontation, due to start today, was calculated to coincide with the Republican convention in Houston. An official said 'we are going to stage an incident' to provoke a confrontation that will serve as a pretext for military action 'to help get the President re-elected'.
The detailed nature of the story makes it likely that the White House does have such a contingency plan, though the planners appear to have underestimated the countermoves open to President Saddam. One wing of the Defence Ministry, for instance, was hit and destroyed in the Gulf war but government ministries in Baghdad, both civilian and military, were relocated during the war and were empty of personnel.
The destruction of ministries would therefore have little impact on President Saddam's political or administrative strength. He could also balance any political humiliation in the eyes of Iraqis by attacking into Kurdistan, from which his forces withdrew last October.
Mr Zebari says Iraq has reinforced two Republican Guards divisions in and around Mosul and Kirkuk, bringing up long-range artillery, ground-to-ground missiles and tanks. Given the strength of the forces a few miles east and south of Arbil, the Iraqi army could probably encircle the city in one night, but might stop short of capturing it because it does not want a renewed exodus of Kurdish refugees to the Turkish border.
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