WASHINGTON – Iraq is preparing to destroy its own oil fields, food supplies and power plants and blame the destruction on U.S. bombs during a war, U.S. intelligence officials said Wednesday.
The officials, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said they have evidence Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has plans to wreck his own infrastructure to foster a humanitarian crisis and turn international opinion against any U.S. and British advance into his territory.
Citing the need to protect intelligence sources, the officials declined to describe that evidence. They spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several military experts in Washington said this was a plausible scenario, given Saddam's destruction of Kuwaiti oil fields as he abandoned that country in 1991.
U.S. defense officials have also said Saddam forces once chopped off the top of a mosque to make it appear it was hit during a U.S. airstrike.
"It's very likely Saddam will use scorched-earth tactics," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "Any amount of destruction to protect his rule is justified."
Others said the course of the war will determine whether Saddam acts in this manner.
"A number of countries have prepared for operations like this in the past, but not executed them," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Virtually everybody who has watched Iraq in action and is familiar with their military tactics probably thinks that Saddam will not go gently into that good night."
The U.S. intelligence officials also predicted Saddam will use his biological and chemical weapons if he believes he is about to fall. They predicted he would attack U.S. forces in Iraq, U.S. allies Israel and Kuwait, and any native Shiite Muslims and Kurds who rise up to oppose him.
Iraq can deliver these weapons with missiles, aircraft-mounted sprayers and artillery shells, the officials said. They expect Iraq to use disease weapons like anthrax, poisons like botulinum and ricin, and mustard gas. Saddam is not believed to have any nuclear weapons.
Iraq maintains it destroyed all of its chemical and biological weapons, and the intelligence officials acknowledged a lack of specific information about Saddam's weapons stockpiles.
Ivo Daalder, a Clinton administration National Security Council staffer, said the intelligence suggests a U.S. war on Iraq could lead to the very situation President Bush wants to prevent: Saddam attacking with weapons of mass destruction and wreaking havoc on his own people.
"I think Saddam has every incentive to make a war as horrible for anybody he can," he said. "The easiest target is not the American people, or the Israelis, the Saudis, or even our troops. It's his own people."
Saddam has been preparing for a war with the United States and its British allies almost since the Sept. 11 attacks, the intelligence officials said. But his military remains in worse shape than it was during the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S.-led forces crushed the vaunted Iraqi army.
Unlike the Gulf War, when Saddam engaged U.S. forces in the open desert along Iraq's borders, this time his military has prepared a multilayered defense, with Baghdad at the center.
Saddam isn't expected to put up much of a fight for large southern cities like Basra, populated largely by Shiites, instead preparing for urban fighting in his capital, where Sunni Muslims dominate.
On the outermost ring is Saddam's war-weary regular army, with perhaps 275,000 troops. They are conscripts, short on training, spare parts and a will to fight, the officials said.
His air force, mostly old jet fighters, is regarded as a limited threat. But his air defenses, while old, remain capable of downing low-flying American warplanes.
Some 80,000 to 90,000 troops in the Iraqi Republican Guard form the next layer of defense. They are better-equipped and trained, largely thanks to spare parts smuggled through Syria, the officials said.
Inside Baghdad are internal security forces, like the 10,000-strong Special Republican Guard, that are loyal to Saddam. They are lightly armed but present a threat as urban fighters who are less likely to flee or surrender, the officials said.
A rapid takedown of Saddam's regime may focus on military and popular uprisings against him and those security forces, officials said.
Combat in Baghdad could further Saddam's ends of creating a humanitarian crisis, as the civilian population is sure to suffer either from errant U.S. bombs or Saddam's reprisals against his own people. U.S. military planners fear the close quarters of urban fighting will lead to high American casualties.
One improvement in Saddam's military in recent years has been in communications, officials said. Chinese and Turkish companies have helped Iraq lay a nationwide fiber-optic network that is difficult for U.S. forces to cut off and monitor.
This allows surface-to-air missile sites, for example, to relay sightings of U.S. aircraft to each other, the officials said.