The United States is considering air strikes against Iraq in response to Baghdad's attempt to down an American U-2 spy plane.
Unlike recent U.S. and British strikes, such a mission would be intended to deal the Iraqi military a substantial setback. Retaliation would be the pretext for a U.S. attack, but Washington's real concern is increasing signs of renewed strength inside Iraq's military.
The U.S. military is weighing the option of both air and missile strikes, according to sources. Washington's heightened anxiety over Iraqi remilitarization suggests that a strike will aim to cripple air defenses and damage Iraq's military infrastructure, including its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi army could be a target as well. There have been reports of Iraq improving its ability to transport forces around the country.
From Washington's standpoint, the recent shootdown attempts are further evidence of increasing activity and boldness by Iraq's military. Other indications of this include Iraq frequently moving surface-to-air missiles in an attempt to conceal their locations from U.S. patrols, and Iraq's growing use of new radars hard-wired to command-and-control facilities. Furthermore, in their recent attempts to track or shoot down American and British planes, the Iraqis have often been "bursting their radars, firing a missile and turning the radar off to avoid return fire, according to sources.
Adding to U.S. concerns are recent reports indicating that Iraq has made strides in rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction program in the nearly three years since international weapons inspectors last visited the country.
The United States has at its disposal the usual forces capable of carrying out a military operation. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, about 25,000 American personnel are in theater, on ships in the Persian Gulf, at air bases in Turkey and Saudi Arabia and in a small army contingent in Kuwait. Land-based and sea-based planes are at the ready — the USS Constellation is in the region — along with supporting elements such as electronic jamming planes, for just such emergencies.
Yet much remains unclear about a U.S. potential mission. Questions of timing and scope are not widely known; neither is whether or not British forces would participate. Tellingly, however, U.S. forces have not yet retaliated with limited strikes for the latest shootdown attempt. This is a departure from recent practice in which U.S. jets attack air defense targets upon provocation and suggests that a larger attack is being coordinated.
Retaliation for attacks on U.S. spy planes, then, may serve as a convenient pretext for a U.S. response intended to severely hamper Iraqi remilitarization. Washington has comparatively little to lose by launching an attack. The Bush administration has lost the smart sanctions battle at the United Nations. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems beyond U.S. influence. And Iraq remains free of international weapons inspectors. The Bush administration must only be careful not to upset Arab nations enough to impact the price of oil.
The potential attack, however, is unlikely to significantly shift the political equation in Iraq, such as removing the current regime from power. Conversely, an air or missile campaign would allow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to proclaim his country the victim of U.S. aggression and renew his plea for an end to the enforcement of the no-fly zones.
Every bomb that strikes Iraq may be another nail in the coffin of U.S. containment policy. But that policy, composed of the sanctions and no-fly zones, is effectively dead anyhow.
Bryan Bender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.