WASHINGTON – The United States and Britain have more than doubled the number of air patrols in the “no fly” zone over southern Iraq this week to keep Iraqi air defenders off guard and mask the start of any war, a senior defense official said Wednesday.
Several hundred sorties a day are now being flown over southern Iraq, including F-16 and other attack planes as well as surveillance, refueling and other support aircraft, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official did not reveal specific numbers.
The increase is meant to preserve an element of surprise for the start of a war, which is expected to unleash a barrage of bombs 10 times as great as in the opening days of the 1991 Gulf War (news – web sites).
By establishing an irregular pattern of sorties over the invasion routes in the south, it becomes more difficult for Iraqi air defenses to foresee a shift from air patrols to actual combat.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, Gen. Tommy Franks, both said at a Pentagon (news – web sites) news conference Wednesday that President Bush (news – web sites) has not yet decided to go to war.
Rumsfeld, Franks and other senior military and senior national security officials met with Bush at the White House to go over final planning for an Iraq war. Other officials said the intent, if Bush decides war is necessary, is to launch an air assault to “shock and awe” Iraqi defenders.
Ten times the firepower would be unleashed from the air, and many more of the bombs would be guided by lasers or satellite signals, too, adding to accuracy, one official said.
At the Pentagon news conference, Franks said the U.S. forces now arrayed against Iraq, said to number at least 230,000 with many more on the way, are prepared for a go-ahead from Bush.
“Our troops in the field are trained, they’re ready, they are capable,” Franks said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell (news – web sites) indicated that little time remains for Saddam Hussein (news – web sites) to meet disarmament demands.
“We will see in the next few days whether or not he understands the situation he is in and makes that choice,” Powell said.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, reported that the number of National Guard and Reserve members called to active duty for the war on terrorism, including the Iraq crisis, rose by 8,470 this week, to 176,553.
If war comes, U.S.-led airstrikes with thousands of bombs and missiles would be combined with quick ground assaults — a combination aimed at overwhelming Saddam’s defenses, preventing him from retaliating with chemical or biological weapons and crushing Iraqi morale.
Targets would include Saddam’s military and political headquarters in Baghdad and elsewhere, air defenses, communications facilities and systems that could be used to launch chemical or biological attacks.
As part of a psychological campaign aimed at weakening the Iraqi army and undermining support for Saddam, U.S. planes on Tuesday dropped 420,000 leaflets in southern Iraq. “Leave now and go home,” some leaflets said. “Watch your children learn, grow and prosper.”
If Bush orders an invasion, Franks will rely on unprecedented bombing accuracy, a factor U.S. officials say could shorten the conflict and limit casualties on both sides. It also could hold down the number of civilian casualties.
In the 1991 war, about 20 percent of the bombs dropped were guided by lasers or satellite signals. This time that percentage is likely to be about 70 percent, a top Central Command official said Wednesday.
The official, who discussed U.S. bomb targeting techniques on condition he not be further identified, contended that because of the greater reliance on precision-guided weapons, civilian casualties could be lower than the estimated 3,000 in the 1991 war.
Franks, however, said the number was unpredictable and would depend in part on Saddam.
Franks also said he could not estimate how many Americans might die in an Iraq war, but he expressed “incredible confidence” in their ability to fight and win.
Franks also declined to offer an estimate of how long a war might last, even in general terms. Many military officials have said they expect it to be shorter than the 1991 war, which began with a five-week bombing campaign followed by a decisive 100-hour ground war to liberate Kuwait.
In the 1991 war, 148 U.S. troops were killed.
Franks said that in the lead-up to that conflict, there were predictions of many U.S. casualties and few people anticipated the ground phase of the war would be so short.
“Since we can’t know what the duration will be, we can’t predict, using some formulation, some mathematical model, what casualties might look like,” he said. “And so I won’t predict numbers of casualties, but I will say that we’ll continue to work to do the job at the least cost in terms of lives, both our own and Iraqi, and the least cost in terms of trade.”