Saddam Hussein's military soothsayers have been warning him for weeks to beware the ides of October. And because Saddam is spooked this week, it will be a nerve-wracking week at the White House, too.
Saddam's advisers have been telling him that on or about Oct. 15, the United States will attack Iraqi forces in occupied Kuwait.Mid-October was the initial secret target date for full deployment of U.S. troops and equipment in Saudi Arabia. Top secret Pentagon documents initially reckoned that the United States would be as ready as ever by then to take on Saddam's massive military forces. But our intelligence sources now say that full deployment of tanks and troops has gone slower than expected and will not be finished until late October or early November. The United States will not launch any attack until all the equipment has been received.
"We can't begin a battle with tanks still on ships at sea," one top Pentagon official said. Still, the analysts at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency are worried that Saddam, with a bad case of the jitters, could make the first strike on his own this week to pre-empt any U.S. attack. Those analysts consider a cornered Saddam to be a dangerous Saddam.
Currently, Iraq has more than 175,000 troops in Kuwait and another 175,000 or so near the Iraq-Kuwait border. The United States has more than 175,000 troops in or near Saudi Arabia but is moving toward a full deployment as high as 250,000 people. The number of Saudi and other allied troops in place or en route could bring the total to more than 300,000. Our intelligence sources estimate that the Iraqis have more than 1,500 tanks in Kuwait and another 1,500 or so just over the border in Iraq. The United States hopes to have 1,000 tanks in Saudi Arabia by Nov. 1.
The final decision to attack would be up to the president, the Pentagon and the State Department, and sources tell us Bush will feel pressure to use the troops within a month of full deployment. The Pentagon sources speak about the "fighting edge" of the Americans in the desert. Heat, boredom and alienation in a strange land will sap the soldiers of their spirit.
State Department sources say the politics of the conflict also conspire to favor an early attack by U.S. forces. For one thing, Saudi Arabians are uncomfortable with a foreign army encamped in their very private country. And as the months go by, that discomfort will turn to antagonism. Other Arab allies are also likely to leave the hastily stitched alliance if the crisis drags out. They would change sides not out of love for Saddam but out of fear that a prolonged crisis would push them toward a repugnant alliance with Israel. Already, Saddam, Jordan's King Hussein and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat are linking the resolution of the Iraqi occupation to a resolution of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.
One scenario that U.S. intelligence analysts say Saddam is considering is to attack Israel if the United States attacks Iraqi troops. Israel would return fire, and all bets would be off. The Arab nations, including perhaps even Saudi Arabia, could switch allegiance overnight to side with Saddam in a holy war against Israel.