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US and Iraq gear up for new conflict: While Washington readies an air strike, Baghdad rearms, writes Christopher Bellamy, Defence Correspondent

THE movements of United States aircraft this week indicate that Washington was preparing an air strike on Iraq. They coincided with evidence that Iraqi military power has been rebuilt to 40 per cent of pre-Gulf war levels, that Iraq has flown 150 military planes since April - more than at any time since before the 1991 war - and that Saddam Hussein has created an elite 'Presidential Guard' force out of the Republican Guard.

On Wednesday night two KC10 tanker aircraft, nine giant C-5 Galaxy transports and nine C-141 Starlifters passed through the Rhein-Main airbase in Germany, reportedly en route for 'the desert'. Unusually large movements have been under way all week.

During the Gulf war KC-10s based at Milan refuelled B-52 bombers over the Mediterranean on their way to Iraq. Now, 18 months later, the formidable new high-speed B1 bomber, having overcome teething troubles, may be available.

The news comes as five Iraqi Army divisions - maybe 50,000 men with 10,000 in the front line - are surrounding the Shia stronghold in the marshlands of the Euphrates. They are launching patrols and artillery attacks supported by fixed-wing aircraft which have been flying openly since April. These include specially adapted Swiss PC-7 training aircraft firing rockets and, in the last few days, Soviet-built Su- 25 Frogfoot ground attack planes. The temporary ceasefire agreement of March 1991 forbade the Iraqis to fly any fixed-wing aircraft, though this was not confirmed in any UN resolution. The only formal prohibition on Iraqi flying applies to all flights - fixed-wing or helicopter - north of the 36th parallel.

In the north, up to half Iraq's 30 remaining or rebuilt divisions could launch an attack against the Kurds with very little warning. And President Saddam has re-established an elite 'Presidential Guard' division - up to 15,000 men out of the larger Republican Guard - in an attempt to improve his personal security.

Iraqi air defences would be expected to put up some opposition to a renewed air offensive. Although the nerves of the centralised air defence system were largely destroyed in the Gulf war, individual missile and gun batteries continue to function - probably as effectively as in the opening stages of the Gulf war. The aim is not to defend all Iraq, just certain targets, and the Iraqis can probably do this with some success. Iraqi aircraft now fly as frequently as they did before the war.

The Iraqis would now have some early warning of an air attack. During the war, they conserved their radars by not turning them on. Some survived unscathed and others have been repaired. Working radars near Iraqi borders will give warning of approaching raids. The Iraqi civilian telephone system has been restored, and analysts believe that part of the military communications system has been rebuilt, although without Russian help.

The Iraqi ground forces are estimated at 350,000, against a pre- Gulf war total of nearly a million. Tanks and artillery total 2,000 each, against pre-war levels of more than 5,000. At the beginning of the Gulf crisis, General Colin Powell, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reported as saying Iraqi forces should be cut back to 100,000 men and 1,000 tanks. Iraq still has between two and four times these levels.

Israeli sources say 115 Iraqi aircraft which fled to Iran in the Gulf war are still there. With Gulf war combat losses, Iraq has about 300 warplanes.

About half Iraq's army strength - 15 divisions - is dug in along the border of the Kurdish area in north-east Iraq. They are in defensive positions, not along a continuous, fortified line. This belt of 'no man's land' extends from the north-west of Iraq to half way down the border with Iran.

Another five to seven Republican Guard divisions are around Baghdad. About two-thirds of President Saddam's forces are in the northern half of the country, facing the Kurds.

But experts are uncertain of reports that the Iraqis have been trying to drain the southern marshes so they can move in to crush those seeking refuge there with heavy armour. The marshy terrain was reason why the armour-heavy Allies could not pursue the remains of the Republican Guard fleeing the Kuwait theatre of operations.

There have been plans to build a canal in the area for at least 10 years, which might have had an incidental effect on the marshes. President Saddam's government lost control of the marsh area in the early to mid-1980s, when tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of deserters from the Iran- Iraq war sheltered there.

Sources also confirmed the Iraqis remain self-sufficient for ammunition. Ammunition dumps were not targeted specifically during the Gulf war and a 'substantial proportion' still exist.