Despite President Bush's repeated bellicose statements about Iraq, many senior U.S. military officers contend that President Saddam Hussein poses no immediate threat and that the United States should continue its policy of containment rather than invade Iraq to force a change of leadership in Baghdad.
The conclusion, which is based in part on intelligence assessments of the state of Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and his missile delivery capabilities, is increasing tensions in the administration over Iraqi policy.
The cautious approach held by some top generals and admirals in the military establishment, including members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is shaping the administration's consideration of war plans for Iraq, which are being drafted at the direction of Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
The senior officers' position that the risks of dropping a successful containment policy for a more aggressive military campaign are so great that it would be unwise to do so was made clear in the course of several interviews with officials inside and outside the Pentagon.
High-level civilians in the White House and Pentagon vehemently disagree. They contend that Hussein is still acting aggressively, is intimidating his neighbors and is eager to pursue weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
These officials say time is not on the side of the United States. "The whole question is, how long do you wait with Saddam Hussein in possession of the capabilities he has and would like to have?" said Richard N. Perle, head of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory group.
The uniformed military's skepticism would not stop Bush if he were determined to attack Iraq, a White House aide said. "I assume that if the president decides this is going to happen, they'll go along with it," he said.
But the military leadership's insistence on airing its concerns already appears to have had an effect. Despite the administration's public rhetoric about Iraq, the view of officials interviewed at the Pentagon in recent days is that there will be no action against Iraq before next spring, and perhaps not even then. They argue that the administration's goal of regime change may well be achieved by Hussein falling into poor health or perhaps by CIA covert operations aimed at toppling him.
By making their views known, the top brass also may bolster congressional Democrats who are counseling a more cautious approach on Iraq. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has scheduled hearings beginning Wednesday on the administration's Iraq policy.
The military's objections also indicate that while the U.S. government is united about wanting Hussein out of power, it remains deeply divided about how to achieve that goal. The military's support of containment, and its concern about the possible negative consequences of attacking Iraq, are shared by senior officials at the State Department and the CIA, according to people familiar with interagency discussions.
One oddity of the containment policy is that the military at first was uneasy with its open-ended, indeterminate nature. But over the last decade, the military grew more comfortable with the policy of restraining Iraq through "no-fly" zones, naval enforcement of sanctions and the continuous presence of about 20,000 U.S. military personnel near Iraq's borders.
Senior officers believe the policy has been more effective than is generally recognized, officials said. As evidence, the top brass said the approach has deterred Hussein from threatening his neighbors and from backing terrorist organizations. They said it also has prevented him from updating his military equipment.
Also, while Iraq unquestionably possesses chemical and biological weapons, defense officials said the current U.S. intelligence assessment is that it has few, if any, operational long-range missiles that could be used to deliver those weapons to attack Israel or other U.S. allies in the region. U.S. intelligence has concluded that Iraq possesses perhaps as many as two dozen Scud "B" missiles with a range of 400 miles that it managed to hide from international inspectors, but that they are not assembled.
Officials said the officers contend that continuing a containment policy is preferable to invading an Iraq that possesses an arsenal of biological and chemical weapons. Another concern is that Iraq could split up under a U.S. attack, potentially leading to chaos and the creation of new anti-American regimes and terrorist sanctuaries in the region.
Active-duty members of the military have not publicly questioned the direction of Bush's Iraq policy, but in private some are very doubtful about it.
"In my assessment, the whole containment-and-sanctions policy has worked better than it's given credit for," said one defense official sympathetic to the military argument. He noted that since the Gulf War ended in 1991, Hussein has obtained some spare military parts but has been unable to import new tanks, aircraft or missiles.
More than one officer interviewed questioned the president's motivation for repeatedly calling for the ouster of Hussein. "I'm not aware of any linkage to al Qaeda or terrorism," one general involved in the Afghanistan war said, "so I have to wonder if this has something to do with his father being targeted by Saddam," a reference to the U.S. government's belief that Iraqi agents plotted to assassinate former president George H.W. Bush with a car bomb during a 1993 visit to Kuwait.
Retired officers and experts who stay in touch with the top brass, and are free to say what those on active duty cannot, are more outspoken in supporting the containment policy and questioning the administration's apparent determination to abandon it.
"I'd argue that containment is certainly a better approach than either marching on Baghdad or destabilizing the Iraqi government by killing Saddam," said retired Col. Richard Dunn III, a former Army strategist. "It only has to work until something happens to him he's either killed or dies."
Added Jim Cornette, a former Air Force biological warfare expert who participated in Gulf War targeting of Iraqi weapons bunkers, "We've bottled him up for 11 years, so we're doing okay. I don't know the reason the administration is so focused on Iraq. I'm very puzzled by it."
Supporters of containment said they expect the United States would prevail quickly in any war, but in the course of the conflict would face several challenges. The Joint Chiefs have used their discussions of the war plan developed this spring, which calls for invading Iraq from the south, north and west with about 225,000 troops, to put before the administration their concerns about three major risks they see:
What to do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, especially its arsenal of biological weapons.
How to engage in urban warfare in Baghdad, especially with the large numbers of military and civilian casualties that such a battle likely would cause.
How to predict the costs of a post-victory occupation, which presumably would require tens of thousands of U.S. troops, not only to keep the peace and support the successor regime, but also to prevent Iraq from breaking up.
A major goal of U.S. policy in a post-Hussein Iraq would be to prevent the creation of an independent state in the heavily Shiite south, or an independent Kurdish state in the north. To fulfill U.S. promises to Turkey and Arab states that Iraq would remain whole, a defense official said, "I think it is almost a certainty that we'd wind up doing a campaign against the Kurds and Shiites." That would represent a striking reversal of administration policy of supporting the Kurds against Baghdad.
Also, officials worry, a large U.S. presence might antagonize Arab public opinion as well as impose heavy financial and human costs on the U.S. military, which already feels stretched by the war on terrorism and peacekeeping commitments in the Balkans.
Advocates of an invasion of Iraq said they have several problems with the military's outlook.
They said Hussein's potential for acquiring long-range missile systems is greater than advocates of containment outline. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney said, for example, that Hussein may be able to smuggle in missiles from sympathetic Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
Others contend Hussein could carry out a chemical or biological weapons attack without missiles. "You don't have to have a long-range missile necessarily to deliver a deadly weapon, especially if it's powdered anthrax," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said recently.
Perle said it is foolish to believe that Hussein would use only the conventional approaches he has used in the past. "Saddam could decide at any time to hand anthrax to terrorists," he said.
As for the military's view that there is no evidence of an Iraqi intent to work with terrorists to attack the United States, Perle said, "That's the type of thinking that brought us to September 11th." It is "flat-out wrong" to think that there are no links between Iraq and terrorist organizations, he said.
Perle said that, ultimately, U.S. policy on Iraq will be set by civilians, and that it will be based on a different set of assumptions than those of the uniformed armed services. "Whether he is contained or not, that's a political question," Perle said. What to do about Iraq essentially boils down to how much risk the U.S. government is willing to take, he said, and "that's a political judgment that these guys aren't competent to make."