Iraq's military strength surprises the Allies

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THE resilience of the Iraqi military machine has come as a surprise to Western observers. General Colin Powell, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1991 Gulf War, aimed to reduce Iraq's million-strong Army with 5,000 tanks and artillery pieces to a force of about 100,000 with 1,000 tanks - enough to counterbalance Iran, without posing an overwhelming threat to other states.

The Allies failed in that aim, leaving the Iraqis with 350,000 troops, 2,300 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces in summer 1991. Initial Gulf war assessments of damage to the Iraqi war machine proved excessive. The Iraqis made skilful use of dummy tanks, and many armoured vehicles escaped over the Euphrates. The Allies, lacking bridging equipment, could not follow on the ground, and, fearing accusations of butchery, were unwilling to pursue them to destruction.

Iraqi numbers have changed little since the end of the Gulf war, despite continued purges. From a strength of 382,000, some 350,000 are in the army. The effectiveness of the air force is reckoned to be negligible, as is that of the Navy.

But, according to the latest figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Iraqi Army has 2,200 tanks, 700 BMP infantry fighting vehicles, 1,500 towed artillery pieces, 230 self-propelled guns and 250 multiple rocket launchers. The army is believed to have up to 500 helicopters but they are thought to be in poor condition and with few competent pilots.

The best equipment continues to be given to the Republican Guard Force Command, the most loyal and best trained troops, of which an eighth division (up to 15,000 troops) has been formed. In the last year, the number of ordinary army divisions has been reduced, from 22 to 19. Special forces and commando brigades have been cut from 15 to ten.

Between a third and a half of all Iraq's forces, mostly infantry, have been deployed along a line north-east of Kirkuk and Mosul, hemming in the Kurds, while a smaller number - up to 50,000 - was used in a fairly efficient campaign against the Shia Muslims in the marsh areas in the south, which have been progressively drained in a campaign concluded about four months ago.

Iraqi nuclear and chemical stocks should all have been destroyed by now, but intelligence experts, notably the CIA, are sceptical. The last quantity of plutonium in Iraq was supposedly transferred to Russia on 12 February, while the UN Chemical Destruction Group completed its task in June, having destroyed 480,000 litres of chemical agent - poison gas - and 28,000 chemical shells.

But privately, intelligence sources believe a considerable quantity of chemical and nuclear material, plus parts of ballistic missiles, remain hidden in underground tunnels to which UN Special Commission has had no access.