'What-ifs' and other twists abound in war with Iraq

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Winning a war against Iraq seems a certainty, but the imminent conflict holds many possible hazards and unknowables for the United States.

If U.S. troops bog down, that could trigger recession at home, place a huge burden on U.S. taxpayers, increase the risk of terror attacks in the United States and fan anti-Americanism abroad. Iraq could unleash chemical or biological attacks on Israel, touching off a wider Arab war.

President Bush has staked much on his effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein without broad international support. And the bar for such a victory is set high.

For the United States to claim vindication for moving pre-emptively, U.S. forces will have to find banned weapons of mass destruction. Adding to the burden, casualties among U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians must be held to a minimum, Iraq's cultural antiquities and natural resources must be safeguarded. And Saddam must be removed.

Bush gave Saddam and his two sons 48 hours -- to 7 p.m. today -- to leave or face war. "The tyrant will soon be gone," he said in a speech televised around the world. Saddam was quick to reject the ultimatum.

Advancing its best-case scenario, the administration suggests a quick and successful war will heal the rift in the Western alliance, pave the way for Iraq's reconstruction, advance Middle East peace, drive down oil prices, stimulate the U.S. economy and serve as a powerful lesson to other hostile regimes.

But "what-ifs" and potential twists abound.

'Lots of wild cards'

What will Saddam will do once bombs start falling? Will he attack Israel with chemical or biological weapons? Set oil fields ablaze as he did in Kuwait in 1991? Try to maximize civilian casualties in his own population? Draw the fighting into city streets? Manage to evade capture?

"There are lots and lots of wild cards," said Michele Flournoy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Central to most, said the former Defense Department planner, is "the reaction of the Iraqi people. Do they see us as liberators or occupiers?"

Another nightmare is that the Iraqis will blow up dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, flooding wide expanses and slowing a U.S. military advance on Baghdad.

Another fear is that Turkish troops will enter Iraq from the north and wage a separate war against Kurds to keep them from declaring an independent state. That could divert U.S. troops from the main struggle.

Even with a U.S. victory, frayed ties with allies could persist for decades, undermining trade relations and the larger war on terrorism.

And the administration's strike-first military strategy could embolden other powers to do likewise.

Russia might use pre-emption to justify tracking down Chechen rebels in the republic of Georgia. India might use it to justify a pre-emptive attack on nuclear rival Pakistan. China could assert such rights to "reclaim" Taiwan.

Economic consequences of a long, drawn-out war could be far-reaching -- at a time when federal budget deficits are already mushrooming.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, warned Tuesday of a "potential for a ragged ending" and challenged the president to lay out the long-term economic and military costs of the war. Shelton suggested the lack of U.N. involvement could force the United States to shoulder the brunt of a 200,000-troop occupation force and $20 billion in annual post-war costs.

Stocks have rallied amid expectations that a war with Iraq would be swift.

"The market expects the war to go well, for Saddam to be vanquished, energy prices lower and few casualties," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Economy.com. "If that script isn't followed closely, I think the markets will be roiled, the economy will struggle and in all likelihood we will be in recession."

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