Iraq's options a poser for US

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The Independent Online
THE TWO crack Iraqi divisions pushed south by Saddam Hussein in the past few days were last night still in positions 'uncomfortably close' to the Kuwait border, south-west of Az Zubayr, although the Iraqis claimed to be pulling back from the border area.

The question remained whether the US could resist the temptation to attack these targets which are 'desperately crammed together,' according to intelligence sources yesterday, or whether the Iraqi Republican Guard divisions will remain there as a threat to Kuwait and the world's oil supplies, possibly for months.

It is considered most unlikely that the Iraqis will use these valuable mobile forces to attack Kuwait as they did in 1990. If they did, they would face more determined resistance on the ground and the powerful US-led air forces in the area, including British, French and Saudi planes, would maul them as soon as they 'crossed the wire'.

The Iraqi reconnaissance in force against Khafji from 29 to 31 January 1991, showed what could happen: one Iraqi brigade reached Khafji - two were halted and repulsed on the Saudi border by air power alone. Intelligence experts therefore believed yesterday that President Saddam would go for the worst possible option from the Western viewpoint: leaving his two crack divisions in position, but not quite threatening enough to give the allies justification for launching the air strikes which could destroy them.

His aim, intelligence sources said, is to attract attention, and thus increase the chances of lifting some of the sanctions which are crippling Iraq. The Iraqis expected the head of the UN Commission on Iraq, Rolf Ekeus, to make some statement on the lifting sanctions, although Western sources said that was not thought likely.

However, some sources also believe there is a cruder aim: to get some of his senior military commanders away from Baghdad.

Despite the damage inflicted on Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war, it has proved surprisingly resilient. Half to a third of President Saddam's army is still in the north, facing Kurdistan, where it can launch operations at very short notice. Three Iraqi infantry divisions already in the southern area conducted a ruthless campaign against the Shia Muslims that ended with the draining and burning of the marsh areas some months ago. The new mechanised forces were assessed as 'very formidable', and were thought to be there for a different purpose.

US intelligence have been tracking the border divisions, drawn from a number of Iraqi units but based on the elite Hammurabi division, which escaped the battle of annihilation in February 1991, for several days.

They are assessed to be at full strength, bringing Iraqi numbers in the southern area, with the three divisions already based there, to between 50,000 and 75,000 troops, according to yesterday's estimates. Before the 1991 Gulf war, the allies overestimated Iraqi strength in the Kuwait theatre of operations, and the same could happen again, although analysts have learnt from experience.

The UN has finished marking the Kuwaiti border, with yellow markers every 2kilometres, all precisely surveyed. Behind this, the Kuwaitis have built a trench and sand embankment, and behind that a metalled road, permitting a swift response to incursions, but although these have been effective in reducing infiltration, they are in no sense military obstacles.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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