The Pentagon and the CIA have begun preparations for an assault on Iraq involving up to 200,000 US troops that is likely to be launched later this year with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein from power, US and diplomatic sources told the Guardian yesterday.
President George Bush’s war cabinet, known as the “principals committee”, agreed at a pivotal meeting in late January that the policy of containment has failed and that active steps should be taken to topple the Iraqi leader.
But, according to a US intelligence source familiar with CIA preparations, the plans for a parallel overt and covert war only landed on the president’s desk in the past few days.
“I will reserve whatever options I have. I’ll keep them close to my vest. Saddam Hussein needs to understand that I’m serious about defending our country,” Mr Bush said yesterday.
Since the principals committee decision, Colin Powell, the secretary of state and the dove of the administration, has pointedly added his voice to the calls for a “regime change”.
“We are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about,” he told the Senate budget committee.
The blueprint for a campaign against Iraq has evolved from a contingency plan drawn up by the joint chiefs of staff that envisaged the use of a 200,000-strong US force, the bulk of which would invade from Kuwait.
However, it may be that the actual force used will be less numerous, relying more on covert and special forces operations.
Central Command has already set up forward headquarters in the Gulf from which each of the component services will be able to coordinate the war.
The air force headquarters (Afcent) is at the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia. The army headquarters (Arcent) is in Kuwait, while the navy (Navcent) is in Bahrain.
Central Command’s marine component (Marcent) is also expected to move to Bahrain in the next few days, weeks after the main marine force left Afghanistan.
The US, Israel and Turkey were due to hold joint exercises codenamed Anatolian Eagle this year, but in another sign of accelerated preparations there will be three such exercises in the next few months, based at the Turkish air force base at Konya. Once upgraded, Konya could be used alongside Incirlik as a base for air strikes on northern Iraq.
The Pentagon’s military planners are reported to have agonised over the Iraq plan because of the significant risk that Saddam – aware that unlike during the Gulf war his own life is at stake this time – would use chemical and biological weapons against US troop concentrations and Israel.
The danger would be minimised by intensive bombing of missile launchers, but the generals reportedly remain extremely concerned that the risks cannot be eliminated entirely.
The CIA’s covert war would involve arming and training Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and Shi’ite forces in Kuwait. CIA trainers and special forces troops have already been dispatched to Kuwait for that purpose, and may already have begun work.
Meanwhile, CIA and special forces will launch a campaign of sabotage and information warfare in the next few months.
The CIA puts very little faith in the military capacity of the main opposition movement, the Iraqi National Congress, but it has begun intensive consultations with INC officials about the logistics of training and arming the movement’s supporters.
The trigger could be the expected row over weapons inspections in three months’ time. America’s allies are clinging to the hope that US military action will be forestalled by Baghdad’s acceptance of unconditional and unfettered weapons inspections when the international sanctions regime comes up for review at the United Nations in May.
However, Iraq’s vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, said yesterday there was no need for “spies” from the UN weapons inspection teams to return to the country.
A US state department official said he thought it very unlikely that the Iraqi regime would be prepared to accept the stringent programme of inspections the US will demand. As the American intelligence source put it, the White House “will not take yes for an answer”, suggesting that Washington would provoke a crisis. He added that he expected the war to begin soon after the May ultimatum.
US allies in the Middle East have been informed that a decision to attack Iraq has already been taken, and diplomats from the region said yesterday they were resigned to the inevitability of a war that may threaten the stability of a string of Arab regimes.
“It is a nightmare situation for us,” said one Arab diplomat in Washington. “We feel the Americans will take very drastic action and we have to be prepared for such a reality. But the public opinion in the street will not see this as a benign attempt to restore order, but as American imperialism.”
France, Germany and others in the European Union have been queuing up to make clear to Mr Bush that they will not support him in military action against Iraq.
The German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, this week joined the French foreign minister, Hubert VÃ©drine, by expressing publicly his concern about US policy towards Iraq.
But Tony Blair and the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, have refused to join the public outcry. A Foreign Office official said yesterday that military action was not imminent, but would be “a question of months”.
A Foreign Office spokesman later said: “The prime minister has made it clear from the outset that the campaign would have two
phases: the first focusing on Afghanistan and the second looking at different aspects of international terrorism. In that context, we have to look at issues such as weapons of mass destruction.”
There are regular exchanges between the US state department and the Foreign Office on strategy for tackling Iraq. The Foreign Office spokesman said: “We will proceed in consultation with our allies and the precise methods of action will be for consultation in due course.”
In the months after September 11, the Foreign Office repeatedly ruled out military action against Iraq, other than the regular bombing along its border with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Its line at the time was that there was no evidence linking Iraq to terrorist activity.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, all US allies neighbouring Iraq, expect to sustain significant economic and political damage from a new conflict. Jordan believes it stands to lose $800m (£500m) from the interruption of deliveries of cheap Iraqi oil, and has already begun to hint at the need for compensation.