Though it might seem like a scene out of the Peter Sellers movie "The Mouse That Roared," in the coming weeks Iraq may attack the United States rather than the other way around. Once Saddam Hussein concludes that war is inevitable, there is little reason for him to wait until the U.S. completes troop deployments and initiates an air campaign.
In Aviano, Italy, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld estimated that a war with Iraq could last from six days to six weeks. Current American war plans seem to involve quickly crossing the desert and isolating Baghdad. Urban warfare in the Iraqi capital might be bloody, but the results would be inevitable. By initiating the war, however, Saddam could disrupt American plans.
It would be in character for Saddam to initiate the war. He became President of Iraq in 1979, and in 1980, Iraq attacked Iran. The bloody Iraq-Iran war continued until 1988, and after a brief respite, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Even after the initiation of the Desert Storm air campaign, Iraq was first to launch a ground offensive, by attacking the Saudi border town of Khafji on January 29, 1991. And Saddam is surely aware that Arab armed forces had their best showing against Israel when they launched a surprise attack in 1973 on the Jewish Holy Day of Yom Kippur.
Saddam has made great sacrifices to maintain his program for developing weapons of mass destruction. His regime has endured sanctions for more than a decade, at great cost to the Iraqi people. As Secretary of State Powell's presentation at the United Nations made clear, Saddam has engaged in an elaborate game of deception to protect his weapons programs.
He has not done this only to have his prized weapons neutralized in the opening hours of a war. Once American arms destroy Saddam's command and control centers, once officers begin to desert, how can he be certain these weapons will be used? The only way to ensure their use would be for intact Iraqi armed forces to launch them in an opening salvo.
Due to limited Saudi cooperation, Allied forces are likely to be concentrated along a narrow front in Kuwait. They may be an inviting target, particularly if they are hit before they move into position. Indeed, an attack with weapons of mass destruction might be most effective by creating panic among Kuwaiti civilians, producing refugees and traffic jams that would interfere with our operations.
Israel would also be an inviting target. While Israel has suggested it might use nuclear weapons against Iraq if attacked with weapons of mass destruction, it seems unlikely that the United States would permit this. More likely, Israel would join the war with conventional forces. But while the Israeli military is powerful, the United States military can certainly handle the job without Israeli support.
A first strike on Israel would rouse the entire Arab world, even more so were Israel to respond. By attacking first, Saddam would alienate European opinion, but in a struggle for survival, the sympathies of his fellow Arabs would be more important. Iraq would surely fall to American forces, but were Saddam first to achieve folk hero status, like Osama bin Laden he might be able to go into hiding and find refuge in another Muslim state.
It's not known if Iraq has the capability to instigate an attack on the Continental United States. The Iraq–al Qaeda link is unproven at this point, but surely it is in the interest of both parties to cooperate. Saddam has the means of producing weapons of mass destruction. Al Qaeda has the means to deliver them in the United States. An Iraqi-sponsored attack might concentrate on targets relevant to the armed conflict. The Beltway Sniper case showed how much chaos a single terrorist unit could produce. Imagine the effect on Pentagon operations if large quantities of biological weapons were unleashed in Northern Virginia.
Unfortunately, because of our participation in the UN process, we are telegraphing all our moves to Saddam ahead of time. He will likely have warning of an impending US attack. There's been discussion of offering Saddam a 48 hour ultimatum to leave Iraq, in the hopes of avoiding bloodshed. While it's unlikely that Saddam would take up such an offer, voices of humanitarian concern within Western public opinion might demand one last "last chance" Even if an ultimatum is not offered, the United States will likely give United Nations weapons inspectors an opportunity to leave Iraq before commencing hostilities. This might be the cue for Saddam to attack.
I am no military expert, but as a fiction writer, I am a creator of plot and analyst of character. Saddam is a wolf. It is not in his character to wait to be attacked. I expect he will strike first.