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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Mulls 'Baghdad-First' Approach to Iraq

WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. government considers its military options for deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, senior administration and Pentagon officials say they are exploring a new if risky approach: take Baghdad and one or two key command centers and weapons depots first, in hopes of cutting off the country's leadership and causing a quick collapse of the government.

The "inside-out" approach, as some call this Baghdad-first option, would capitalize on the U.S. military's ability to strike over long distances, maneuvering forces to envelop a large target. Those advocating that plan say it reflects a strong desire to find a strategy that would not require a full quarter-million U.S. troops, yet hits hard enough to succeed. One important aim would be to disrupt Iraq's ability to order the use of weapons of mass destruction.

The advantages and risks of strikes aimed deep inside the country and radiating outward are now under active discussion, according to senior administration and U.S. Defense Department officials. No formal plan has yet been presented to U.S. President George W. Bush or the senior members of his national security team, and several officials cautioned that a number of alternatives were still under consideration.

The inside-out ideas are essentially the reverse of the U.S. strategy in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, which dislodged Saddam's occupying army from Kuwait.

The aim would be to kill or isolate Saddam and to pre-empt Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction, whether against an incoming force, front-line allies or Israel. Those weapons are the wild card in all the outlines of a military confrontation.

Officials say it may be possible to paralyze an Iraqi command-and-control system that is highly centralized and authoritarian. Under such a system, mid-level officers are not taught to improvise should they be cut off from commanders. It is also possible that those mid-level officers, if they fear that Saddam has been killed, would not bother to fire weapons of mass destruction.

If that can be accomplished with a smaller invasion force than the 250,000 troops suggested in early drafts, the approach could appeal to skittish Gulf allies whose bases would be required for a war.

Those states are quietly advocating the quickest and smallest military operation possible, to lessen anti-American protests on their streets. In that sense, the war planning includes the political dimension of trying to tip reluctant allies into supporting, tacitly at least, the operation.

Something nearer the 250,000 figure might have to be deployed to the region anyway, to make sure that any forces that drop into Baghdad do not become isolated or surrounded, bereft of a land line providing military support, food and ammunition.

The Defense Department deputy spokesman, Bryan Whitman, said the Pentagon would have no comment on potential military plans for Iraq.

But it is clear that the debate over whether and how to dislodge Saddam is gaining speed within the administration and on Capitol Hill.

"There is a divergence of views on how can one best diminish the prospect that he uses weapons of mass destruction with any efficacy," said U.S. Senator Joseph Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who stressed that he had not been briefed on administration thinking.

In May, Bush was presented with concepts that advocated a major invasion, but some senior officials are said to view the plan as unimaginative.

In contrast, a key national security aide, retired General Wayne Downing, had reportedly argued that Saddam could be toppled with minimal numbers of Americans on the ground, provided they were backed up by huge airstrikes. However, senior officials concluded that a proxy battle would be insufficient to bring a change in power in Iraq, and General Downing left the White House last month.

"It's easy to rule out both ends of the spectrum," one senior Defense Department official said. "We are looking at the three or four options in between."

No timetable has been set for military action, and if Bush decides to go ahead, his aides say, he will have to make a public, convincing case about why Saddam poses an intolerable threat to the United States and its allies. Some members of Congress, including conservative Republicans, are beginning to urge Bush to explain his reasoning and goals before committing U.S. forces to topple a foreign government that has not attacked the United States.

"The time will come to do all of that," a senior administration official said in an interview on Friday. "And no one is opposed to doing it."

Baghdad is ringed by Saddam's most elite forces, and the city itself is filled with antiaircraft batteries. While officials declined to discuss details of any new operation in detail, it would probably include intense air attacks followed by a combined airborne and ground assault on strategic targets.

Senior administration and Pentagon officials said they expected that a military action against Iraq would be mostly U.S.-run, with Britain the only partner contributing significant forces. But cooperation from allies in the region -- particularly in the form of bases -- would be essential.

Persian Gulf governments have significant areas of agreement with Bush's policy, and equally important areas of concern, according to senior officials, diplomats and military officers from the region.

Those nations have issued warnings against U.S. military action, have called for dialogue with Baghdad and they identified with Iraq at the Arab League summit meeting last spring, yet Gulf state officials said Saddam, while contained today, remained a threat.

Officials from those nations are equally adamant that any military action should be the minimum necessary to bring about a change in rule. "The worst scenario from our view would be a big war by air and land and with lots of bombs and civilian casualties," said a Gulf official.

In any case, the Gulf nations first want the United States to demonstrate some progress in the crisis between the Palestinians and Israelis before opening yet another front in the region, after Afghanistan.