6 Predictions Days Before the Iraq War

Experts forecasted possible successes, failures of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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Veterans, politicians, journalists and government officials alike stopped Tuesday to ponder the state of security and the Middle East as March 19 marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq (or March 20, if you were in the Eastern Hemisphere at the time).

[PHOTOS: The 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War]

The state of security and militaries worldwide changed drastically during the last 10 years that witnessed the fall, capture and execution of one of the world's most brutal and notorious dictators, as well as more than 100,000 subsequent deaths. As the world reflects on this redefining age and how it will shape the future, U.S. News takes a look at predictions of the past.

In February 2003, almost exactly a month before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched, U.S. News compiled six likely scenarios concerning the situation in Iraq. Check out how we fared:

1. Iraqi forces unleash their chemical or biological weapons arsenal.

This was a widespread concern among war planners, who issued protective gear to most forward-deployed troops in case the Iraqi army employed these attacks. Ultimately, coalition troops and weapons inspectors came up empty in their search for weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon bought some time against their claims of WMDs in the early stage of the war by pointing to the vast expanse of Iraq and the potential hiding places.

The Council on Foreign Relations published an assessment in the New York Times of the potential for a chemical or biological attack less than a month after the war began.

"Preliminary searches at a suspected chemical weapons factory near the central Iraqi town of Najaf found no banned materials," CFR wrote. "However, Times reporter Judith Miller, who is embedded with weapons searchers, has reported that there are hydraulically sealed doors at that facility that haven't been opened yet."

2. Saddam Hussein makes a bloody last stand in Baghdad.

Coalition forces may have overestimated the strength of the Iraqi Army or its resolve to repel the invaders. Allied troops advanced on Baghdad less than a month after pushing across the Iraqi border.

"More than 70 tanks and 60 Bradley fighting vehicles swept into the city on the western side of the Tigris at 7 am local time (0400 BST), pushing further into the capital than at any time since the war began on March 20," according to an April 7, 2003 Guardian report. "Television pictures showed US armoured vehicles pull up alongside the main presidential palace on the banks of the Tigris, and its defenders fleeing."

The U.S. task forces had began assaults on Baghdad two days before, and were met with announcements from Hussein urging his soldiers to step up their attacks against U.S. and U.K. troops, reports the BBC.

Intelligence officials believed Hussein fled Baghdad days after it fell. He narrowly escaped death during the assault according to an AFP report that says he escaped from one of his mansions minutes before it was bombed by U.S. forces.

He was ultimately caught "like a rat" by U.S. troops in an underground hole at a farmhouse near Tikrit the following December, and hanged in Baghdad in 2006.

3. Iraq's oil wells are turned into fields of fire.

The Iraqi troops decision to alight Kuwaiti oil fields during their 1991 retreat became an iconic image of the first Gulf War. The U.S. was seriously concerned about a repeat of this tactic, not in the least because it would cost the Iraqis up to $50 billion in wasted resources, according to a U.S. official at the time.

Ultimately, it did not happen.

4. Saddam puts civilians in harm's way.

The possibility of the Iraqi military employing human shields was at the forefront of concerns among Pentagon planners. Air Force Gen. Richard Meyers, then Joint Chiefs chairman, told reporters he feared the deliberate recruitment of Iraqis and volunteers from Arab and Western countries, which he said was illegal under the International Law of Armed Conflict, according to a January 2003 BBC report.

A war taking place in a highly populated country will invariably lead to high civilian casualties. As many as 100,000 Iraqis died in the first year and a half of fighting, according to a Washington Post report. IraqBodyCount.org estimates that number, which peaked in 2006 and 2007, now reaches beyond 120,000.

The violence continues through the 10 year anniversary of the beginning of the war, as a wave of blasts killed 57 on Tuesday.

[PHOTOS: Blasts Kill Dozens in Iraq on 10th Anniversary]

Not all human shields were forced into that role. CNN interviewed an American activist who purposefully positioned himself at an Iraqi water treatment facility in an attempt to quell the U.S. bombing campaign. Other reports show Iraqis placed themselves near important religious sites to protect them.

5. Terrorists acquire Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

This did not come to fruition in Iraq as no WMDs were found. However, this threat remains at the forefront of security concerns today. The United Nations confirms the Bashar al Assad regime posses stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria.

The 10th anniversary of the war in Iraq also ushered in news that 26 people died in Aleppo, Syria in the first chemical attack in the roughly 2 years of fighting there.

Western countries remain wary of the coalition of fighters in Syria, which likely includes groups with active ties to al-Qaida.

6. Once Saddam is ousted, Iraq descends into chaos.

The words "chaos" and "Iraq" appear together 11.5 million times in a simple Google search. The country was able to erect a democratically elected parliamentary system, and some order has been restored to the bustling nation after 10 years of war.

[PHOTOS: U.S. Troops Return Home From Iraq]

Here is an assortment of headlines, documenting the fragility of Iraq throughout its transition from war zone to sovereign nation: Death and chaos in Iraq (June 24, 2003), U.S. officials fear chaos if Iraq charter isn't passed (Sept. 30, 2005), Deterioration: The violence and chaos in Iraq are spinning out of control (Dec. 7, 2006), U.S., Iran to discuss chaos in Iraq (July 23, 2007).

The Council on Foreign Relations warned of the possibility of "political chaos" after U.S. troops withdrew in 2011. Since, there have been threats—so far, only threats—that Iraq would dissolve its parliament.


This article originally appeared in the Feb. 17, 2003 issue of U.S. News & World Report.


Six Deadly Fears

By Mark Mazzetti; Kevin Whitelaw; Marianne Lavelle

The U.S. military is confident of victory in Iraqbut at what price?

Donald Rumsfeld likes making lists. This is a man, after all, who lives by a collection of maxims known as "Rumsfeld's Rules." Yet few lists the defense secretary has ever compiled are more ominous than the one that now sits on his desk at the Pentagon. It is a collection of things that could go wrong if the United States goes to war with Iraq, and for months he has been steadily adding to it. He has yet to cross anything off.

With Colin Powell's address to the United Nations ratcheting up pressure on Saddam Hussein (story, Page 26) and a military conflict drawing ever closer, there is remarkable consensus among war planners about one thing—that the United States would win a second Gulf War, and in short order. "On the military side, the outcome is not in doubt," says one top officer. Iraq's ramshackle and ill-trained Army, they argue, would be little match against overwhelming U.S. military superiority. With 125,000 troops already in the region and the northern half of Kuwait converted into a vast marshaling yard, the Pentagon last week launched another round of deployments, sending the 101st Airborne Division and the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk toward the Persian Gulf. More than 42,000 British troops are poised for an attack, and cargo ships continue to bring a stream of tanks and armored vehicles into Kuwaiti ports. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, whose 24th Mechanized Infantry Division helped execute the famous "left hook" attack against an Iraqi Army stronger than today's in Operation Desert Storm, puts it this way: "The Iraqis have no good military options. There is no technique, no tool that they can now adopt that will have any military significance on the outcome of the conflict."

Yet beneath the confidence among U.S. officials about the outcome, a general unease exists about the unintended consequences of trying to take down Saddam Hussein's regime. It could go smoothly: Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution estimates that as few as 100 U.S. soldiers may be killed. If things go badly, he predicts, that figure could hit 5,000. Saddam, many fear, like the biblical Samson, will bring the walls of the temple down around himself. "Based on a fair amount of trying to figure Saddam and his cronies out, I wouldn't try to predict how they will behave," remarks one senior Pentagon planner. "That's what makes them so dangerous." The following are scenarios that war planners tell U.S. News keep them up at night. Some of their worst-case scenarios they refuse to divulge, for fear of giving Saddam any more ideas.

1. Iraqi forces unleash their chemical or biological weapons arsenal.

After the 1991 Gulf War, the CIA reported that Saddam Hussein had ordered his troops to use chemical weapons if American troops crossed a certain line in Iraq. They didn't, and a fusillade of deadly gases was never launched. This time around, any war would go all the way to Baghdad, and U.S. intelligence is reporting that Saddam recently authorized his field commanders to use chemical weapons to combat a U.S. invasion. Most likely, Saddam would use artillery-delivered mustard gas and nerve agents against U.S. ground elements advancing on Baghdad. If so, says McCaffrey, "it's going to create conditions of abject misery, but it will have no impact on the pace of the operation."

U.S. military planners are working to confound Iraq's ability to use these weapons. The invasion plan is designed to move swiftly, sow confusion, and cut off Saddam's command and control. Already, U.S. forces are conducting psychological operations to persuade local commanders to ignore orders to use weapons of mass destruction or face war-crimes charges in the aftermath. But the orders could still be carried out by the Special Security Organization, a powerful agency headed by one of Saddam's sons.

Iraq is most experienced at loading chemical weapons into artillery shells that could be used on the battlefield. Unprotected Iraqi civilians could be killed, and U.S. forces might still take casualties despite their protective gear, but U.S. forces could take out artillery batteries relatively quickly. Biological weapons could be scarier still, particularly if Saddam employed a nonconventional delivery system, such as aerosol sprayers hidden along major roads. "We might not even realize we've been slimed," says Michael Eisenstadt, a military expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Defenses against exotic agents like botulinum toxins are limited.

According to Powell, Iraq retains several dozen long-range Scud missiles it could use to hit nearby U.S. military command posts or against Israel in order to draw a response that could provoke the Arab world. But U.S. Scud-hunting techniques have improved since the last war, and special operations troops may already be scouring the western Iraqi desert to neutralize any remaining launchers.

In his presentation to the United Nations last week, Powell revealed a newer, more serious threat: Iraq has been testing unmanned aerial vehicles with a range of more than 300 miles. Combined with spraying technology that Iraq has previously developed, these could deliver deadly biological agents to a number of neighboring countries and nearby U.S. military bases.

2. Saddam Hussein makes a bloody last stand in Baghdad.

Baghdad is the one true prize in the fight for Iraq, but it could prove a costly one for U.S. troops. Many analysts think most Iraqis would simply hunker down in their homes and wait out the war. But the streets of the capital could provide a last-ditch defense for Saddam's most loyal troops: the Special Republican Guard and his fiercely disciplined security forces. "If you have 100,000 people willing to defend Saddam, that can cause a lot of casualties," says Kenneth Pollack, an Iraq analyst at the CIA during the Gulf War. Troops and tanks that make easy targets in the open desert are harder to attack in an urban setting, and war planners worry that civilian casualties and so-called collateral damage could weaken support for the U.S. war effort.

The Army's 1993 experience in Mogadishu, Somalia, where 18 Rangers were killed by Somali militiamen, is still fresh in the minds of officials at the Pentagon. In recent months, U.S. soldiers and marines have been assaulting mock cities in Louisiana, California, and Guam to prepare for what they might encounter in Baghdad. Marine Corps officials have also traveled to Israel to study how the Israeli Defense Forces quelled the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank town of Jenin. Yet military officials are still hopeful that after a massive bombardment of Saddam's power centers and wholesale defections of Iraqi troops, they might never have to apply what they've learned.

3. Iraq's oil wells are turned into fields of fire.

As they retreated from Kuwait in 1991, Iraqi troops committed one final indiginity: They torched the country's oil wells. It took oil-field workers nine months to put the fires out, and Central Command is expecting Saddam would use the same tactic if the U.S. invades. According to intelligence officials, there are signs that Saddam has already wired some of Iraq's 1,500 oil wells to explode on his orders.

This time, war planners would try to dispatch U.S. or coalition forces to protect the oil fields before he could set them ablaze. But if he did, the result could be far worse than in 1991. Besides the fact that Iraq has more than twice as many wells as Kuwait, oil-field firefighters say the natural pressure in Iraq's oil wells may be double that of the Kuwaiti wells, meaning that fires would be more intense. In addition to polluting the air, the wells could foul the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, sources of water for drinking and irrigation, as well as dump 2 million to 3 million barrels of oil a day into the Persian Gulf.

Jeff Miller of Cudd Pressure Control, one of the oil-field firefighting companies the Pentagon has retained to cap burning wells, says that while firefighters were able to extinguish the 1991 fires at the rate of one blaze per day, it would take much longer in Iraq. "This looks like six to seven days per well in some locations, and multiply that by the number of wells, and you've got a huge environmental disaster." According to Miller, the Defense Department has contingency plans in place for his 38 employees as well as dozens of other firefighters from three other companies. "They all have pagers, kind of like doctors," he says. If called, it would probably take them 24 to 48 hours to arrive, probably on military and civilian cargo planes that also carry their equipment.

4. Saddam puts civilians in harm's way.

As Air Force planners methodically pore over target lists, there is one wild card they can't control: a decision by Saddam to use human shields in Baghdad or other Iraqi cities. The opening phase of the war would be a massive air campaign on Baghdad to cut off Saddam's command and control. Military officials worry that Saddam could put Iraqi civilians or western reporters inside high-value targets, which the Pentagon may have to strike regardless. "It could be a very dangerous situation," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers recently acknowledged. Central Command also fears that Saddam might kidnap U.N. weapons inspectors, holding them hostage before the United Nations was able to pull them out of the country.

Such tactics could be part of a larger scorched-earth campaign Saddam would execute in his final days. The United States has gathered intelligence indicating that he would destroy mosques and power plants in an attempt to pin blame on western invaders. Saddam could even destroy the four key dams controlling the water supply in Iraq, flooding the southern marshlands and potentially killing thousands. During Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. military considered such a tactic to flood Baghdad, and now planners face the threat of Saddam's pulling out every stop to slow down a U.S. advance. Says Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University, "I don't trust him to leave anything sacred."

5. Terrorists acquire Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

Whether or not Saddam is currently allied with al Qaeda, a war could push them closer. Indeed, the CIA has assessed that Saddam may well deliver chemical or biological weapons to terrorists as his "last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him."

Even if this didn't happen, the chemical and biological weapons stocks could still slip out of the country in the chaos following an invasion. "You can take one of the mobile biological labs and drive it across the border," says Pollack. "The greater possibility is they get across into the open arms of Syrian and Iranian border guards." These regimes already have their own programs to build weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But terrorists could well obtain smaller quantities of harmful agents, especially if, as U.S. officials allege, the stocks have been secreted all over the country. "There's nothing to say that an Iraqi bioscientist doesn't have a pile of the stuff in his freezer," says one former defense official.

For the U.S. military, anything connected to WMD is a top-priority target. Air Force planners have spent months trying to locate these stockpiles and determine whether or not they are safe to bomb. U.S. ground forces would blanket the country as quickly as possible, using defectors and scientists to locate the stockpiles.

Even short of a WMD attack, the risk of terrorism would be much higher if there is war. Iraq, for one, would try to hit U.S. targets. "They're putting terror teams out there," says one source with access to intelligence. More broadly, al Qaeda and other groups could use the war as further motivation to go after Americans.

6. Once Saddam is ousted, Iraq descends into chaos.

After war, Iraq could prove hard to control. The fate of Saddam himself is perhaps least worrisome because, even if he somehow escaped, few experts believe he could ever mount much of a guerrilla campaign. "If he is able to thumb his nose at us like Osama bin Laden, the United States is going to look ridiculous," says Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. "But he won't be a threat once he's out of power, so it's more symbolic."

But Iraqis, freed from Saddam's repressive grip, could unleash a wave of revenge killings that could spin out of control. "After a period of bloodletting, there will have to be law and order," says one U.S. official. This would most likely take thousands of U.S. soldiers camping out in Iraq for many months. While most Iraqis probably would be happy to be rid of Saddam, there is great resentment after years of American-led sanctions. If the Iraqi death toll in a war is high, U.S. forces could be greeted very coldly.

American planners have devised a process for ruling Iraq that begins with an American general in charge and evolves over a period of more than 18 months into an Iraqi government. But no decisions have been made about who exactly would govern Iraq then. Iraq's numerous tribes, for example, could end up battling one another in a power struggle. U.S. officials think they can control it. "If we're the most powerful player in the region, they will want to be allied with us," says one planner. "If we have to pay for it, so be it."

Experts can spin out countless other scary scenarios. Kurdish parties could be tempted to push for independence. The country could split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Or neighbor Iran could meddle. "On some days, I get up thinking this will be relatively quick and we will be left with a pretty good situation afterwards," says one U.S. official involved in the planning. "On other days, I wake up and think, 'Holy sh--.'"

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