Top officials at the Pentagon have a long list of horrific things that could go wrong with a United States invasion of Iraq. Most of their worries, sources say, have to do with Saddam Hussein and what he might do if he felt his regime and his life were in jeopardy.
“He will do anything to survive and if he feels he cannot survive, he will do anything to be a martyr and inflict any damage he can,” said ABCNEWS’ military analyst Anthony Cordesman, who is an author of many books on Iraq.
Everything U.S. commanders worry about could have an impact on the speed of an invasion and on the number of potential American casualties.
Among their concerns are:
Iraqi forces might grab American journalists now in Baghdad and use them as human shields.
Saddam Hussein will burn warehouses filled with food for his own people, touching off a panic among Iraqi civilians and sending millions of hungry people out in search of food just when U.S. troops are approaching. Officials say that confusion would vastly complicate the battlefield.
U.S. Military Expects Biological Attack
But a far greater worry, intelligence officials say, is what the Iraqi leader might do with his chemical and biological weapons. Intelligence sources say they have intercepted communications authorizing Iraqi field commanders to use weapons of mass destruction if they are cut off from headquarters by a U.S. attack.
American commanders take the threat so seriously that in addition to all other instruments for detecting a gas attack, some front line units are being ordered to take live chickens into battle as the ultimate early warning system of poison in the air. The chickens would serve the same purpose as canaries in coal mines. When the birds die, coal miners realize the air is turning deadly and they need to get out.
The American military is expecting such attacks and has trained for them. Iraqi civilians have not.
“The true impact is on the population around our forces who are unprepared, untrained and certainly don’t have the protective equipment,” said retired Gen. Gregory Newbold, former director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and now an ABCNEWS consultant.
Would Saddam Torch His Oil Wells?
Oil fires are another concern. A decade ago Saddam Hussein blew up most of Kuwait’s 700 oil wells as his troops were forced out of Kuwait territory by American troops.
Intelligence officials claim that Saddam Hussein now has a plan to blow up Iraq’s vast oil fields – twice the size of Kuwait’s – and in recent days has moved tons of explosives near the wells.
For American troops heading north toward Baghdad, having to pass through this kind of burning inferno would vastly complicate their journey.
Walt Boomer, the Marine Corp commanding general during the Persian Gulf war, said he would not be surprised if Saddam Hussein torched his own oil fields – just like he did to Kuwait’s.
“It was done out of hatred and spite,” he told ABCNEWS. “But that’s the kind of person you are dealing with.”
Damage to the Environment, Infrastructure
The damage to the environment would be catastrophic, officials say. And it would deprive the Iraqi people after a war of badly needed resources to rebuild their country. The United States is counting on that oil revenue, officials concede, to help pay for the U.S. operation.
Another near-biblical threat would involve using the water of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as a weapon. Iraq has four major dams that control water flow down these rivers. U.S. intelligence sources say there is evidence Saddam Hussein might blow up those dams. That could sweep thousands of unsuspecting Iraqis to their deaths and drastically complicate the march of American troops on roads that would suddenly be underwater.
More traditional military worries involve what the Iraqis might try to do their only water access to the Persian Gulf, called the Shatt al Arab. American military planners hope to use that waterway to bring supplies and troops into Iraqi territory, but they are concerned that the Iraqis might mine the waters and sink ships in the channels to prevent American use.
These are all frightening possibilities, but what gives U.S. war planners nightmares is the idea that Saddam Hussein may have still nastier plans they have not yet even considered.