Saddam Hussein may soon seek his first major military victory in the Persian Gulf war, his hand forced by repeated allied bombing of Iraqi military sites, military sources said.
"Only an idiot would sit there forever while his military is being destroyed," a Pentagon source said. "He'll soon be at the point where it's use it or lose it."Although there was virtual unanimity among midlevel officers that Saddam would try to strike soon, there was disagreement over what type of punch he would throw. All sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
In recent days, security has been improved at several allied military installations, and military sources conceded there is increased sensitivity to the possibility of a terrorist attack.
Troops at bases within range of Iraq's Scud missiles and artillery are being cautioned not to ignore warnings of a possible chemical attack simply because one has not come in the first days of war.
And there is concern that Saddam will intensify attacks on Israel in hopes of eroding its patience with U.S. promises to halt Saddam's missile volleys and of forcing a retaliation that might divide the U.S.-led allies.
Senior officers pointed to a bizarre new twist in the gulf war: the landing of Iraqi planes in Iran, where they apparently have taken refuge.
Iran has stressed its neutrality in the gulf war, and, publicly, senior U.S. officials are taking Iran's word that it will impound the planes until the fighting ends.
Privately, however, the military sources said they are worried Saddam has cut some deal with Iran to protect his best fighters from the allied bombing, which began Jan. 16.
Others suggest Iraq may be willing to leave the planes in Iran on Tehran's terms for now but make a dramatic provocation to draw Israel into the war, then seek permission to bring the jets out of their haven.
A senior Air Force officer in Riyadh said, "Even if they're grounded for now, Saddam keeps them from the bombing while he tries to get Israel to shoot back. Unless they defected, and I don't think for a second they did, it could help him in the long run."
The Pentagon source, however, disputed that thinking, saying Iran would forfeit any progress in efforts to win needed Western aid to rebuild its economy, shattered by a 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The Air Force officer suggested the allies could add another AWACS radar plane to the several flying over the gulf region or change the flight patterns of the existing AWACS to keep a better eye on Iran.
Another possibility, the officer said, was revising combat air patrols over the gulf to offer more protection against any strike launched from Iran. He said diplomatic pressure also will be exerted to keep the planes grounded.
Military officials are also concerned about the safety of U.S. and allied troops moved swiftly to border areas in recent weeks in preparation for a ground assault, which some have said might come in February.
Officials now realize that more air sorties are needed to soften Iraq's forces and more time is required to prepare U.S. troops.
But the ground troops are well within range of Iraq's short- and medium-range missiles and artillery that can fire chemical shells.
If he were willing to forfeit dozens of planes, allied sources say Saddam likely could also deliver a blow to the border-area forces by launching a wave of jets.
Many officers believe Saddam will strike back before the allies shift to a ground offensive, according to a pool dispatch Sunday written by Douglas Jehl of The Los Angeles Times. Jehl, in the field with the Army's 1st Armored Division, quoted sources familiar with intelligence reports.
The concerns, however, are balanced by growing confidence that the air campaign is sapping Sad-dam's strength.
Food and spare parts are said to be in short supply among many Iraqi troops in occupied Kuwait. And while officers believe dug-in Iraqi forces could maintain defensive positions for some time, their offensive capabilities are in question because of perceived logistics and morale problems.