WASHINGTON, July 18 (UPI) -- When will the Bush administration launch U.S. armed forces against Iraq in a bid to topple President Saddam Hussein? Bet on this year rather than next and sooner rather than later.
The conventional wisdom in Washington in recent months has been that no such attack is likely until well into next year. Of course, that may well be the case. Several detailed articles have appeared in major U.S. newspapers citing senior, unnamed Department of Defense officials as saying that this is their understanding.
These reports may be accurate, or they may be the American version of masrilovka -- the old Soviet term for strategic disinformation to misdirect an enemy. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, who championed the actual creation of an explicit information unit in the Pentagon that would spread misleading stories as well as accurate ones, is known to have a passion for such things.
What is remarkable is that, if they are the latter, it is one of the leading hawks pushing for a pre-emptive offensive war against Iraq who may have blown the whistle on it.
Speaking on a PBS network documentary about Iraq last week, Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who is also immensely influential with civilian Pentagon hawks in the current administration one, confidently predicted that when President George W. Bush gives his State of the Union message next year he would have "good news" to give the American people about Iraq.
For almost all the American people, the best news they could be given about Iraq would be that they did not have to go to war against it. But that clearly was not what Perle was thinking at all. By "good news" about Iraq he mean the elimination of Saddam and his government by the U.S. armed forces.
There are quite a number of straws in the wind to suggest that Perle, who enjoys immense influence with and access to Feith and to Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, knows what he is talking about.
First, the British government, the only major European ally that is enthusiastically supporting the Bush administration in its determination to bring down Saddam by direct military means, is quietly acting as if a war will come this fall or winter rather than not until next year.
British security sources have confirmed that significant contingents of British troops are being quietly withdrawn from peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. The only reason this could be happening simultaneously at this time, they said, was in preparation for the expected operations against Iraq.
Also, these sources confirmed, Britain's Royal Air Force is practicing low-level precision bombing strike missions that they expect to have to undertake against Iraq.
UPI veteran foreign correspondent and Middle East expert Claude Salhani, who covered the 1991 Gulf War from the front lines, also believes that the combination of seasonal physical conditions in the Middle East and political factors back in the United States point to a full-scale offensive against Iraq this fall, rather than later next year.
"If they go in, they will have a very short window of opportunity -- after the desert heat, before the rains in the mountains and before the U.S. elections," Salhani says.
The baking heat in the Arabian Desert and Fertile Crescent almost never eases before October, especially in these days of global warming. But if significant U.S. forces go in through Turkey and Kurdistan in the north of Iraq, as seems increasingly likely, the usual winter heavy rains could significantly deplete the effectiveness of U.S. air support and also turn mountain roads and tracks into mud, slowing down heavy, tracked vehicles.
As to the November midterm congressional elections, political leaders always react with outrage to the very idea that military operations are ever timed, or rushed, to conform to any such partisan and selfish domestic political considerations. But for an administration that has deliberately made its alleged effectiveness and resolution in the war on international terror its central appeal, the desire to have good news from Iraq, or at least progress on any anti-terror front, by November is obvious.
It is also striking that some of the U.S. media coverage making the case that the offensive will not be launched until next year, based key arguments on claims that Department of Defense civilian policymakers had been forced to slow down their hell-bent and ambitious timetable because senior Army military officers had said they needed more time in planning.
But this Pentagon civilian leadership led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz has been deliberately more contemptuous and unheeding of the concerns of infantry and armor experts in the regular Army than any other since the dark days of Robert McNamara during the Vietnam War more than 35 years ago.
Well-placed armed forces officers serving in the Pentagon have told UPI that the leaders of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Special Forces are enthusiastic about undertaking operations against Iraq. Special Forces commanders in particular believe they can rapidly replicate their lightning and virtually casualty free operations in Afghanistan, these officers said.
However, senior Army and Marine officers do not share these gung ho attitudes and believe that operations against Iraq will require at least 200,000 regular troops and possibly more, and will need to be planned and conducted very carefully, these sources said.
There is no question about which side of the debate Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith and their colleagues come out on.
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine traced the way in which Rumsfeld had humiliated and isolated current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, a regular Army infantry expert, and appointed as his vice chief of staff and future successor Lt. Gen. John Keane, a Special Forces enthusiast.
It therefore appears unlikely that he and his civilian colleagues would actually heed such cautious advice from professional Army officers when it conflicts with what their more eager-beaver Special Forces enthusiasts are telling them.
This analysis is obviously not carved in stone. The attack on Iraq may not come until next year or it may not come at all. Or all the factors we have listed above may turn out to be more deliberate disinformation fed to the unsuspecting press. But don't rule it out either. When ambitious men with dreams of glory are in a hurry, subtlety often gets left behind as often as prudence or plain common sense.