Right on the heels of the Azores meeting White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said succinctly and clearly that "the window of diplomacy is closed". It means now comes the turn of the military. The Americans have for the umpteenth time called on Hussein to leave Baghdad, giving him time to ponder and at the same time attempting to scare him with the undoubted might of American weapons. An impression is forming that the coalition's military command and the US administration itself, despite the overwhelming preponderance in strength, fear something and are doing everything possible to persuade Iraqi troops to lay down arms or, at any rate, not to fight too zealously and quickly to surrender.
Yes, they fear the forces over which they have a multiple advantage. The point is that today "Freedom for Iraq" will indeed have to be won, with no time to wait till it is over as was the case with Desert Storm. Overthrowing the Saddam government requires capturing his capital, and this calls for absolute command of the air at a time when ground forces go into a decisive assault or begin entering the city already abandoned by the enemy.
Perfectly aware of the US "strategic" designs, Hussein this spring converted Baghdad into a strong point, concentrating there practically all his resources, especially air defence units, in fact deciding not to defend the rest of the country.
It is Baghdad's air-defence system that worries the Americans most. Literally on the eve of invasion united group air commander Major-General Dan Leaf told journalists that AD forces brought to Baghdad have such fire power that "anyone getting within the hitting range is bound to suffer. All this makes Baghdad a serious problem." Assessing Baghdad's AD system overall, the general is blunt and categorical as a military man: "This is a well-thought out and strong defence. Outside Baghdad alone there are more AD units than even throughout the whole of Iraq during Desert Storm. And there were plenty then".
In other words, it looks as if there is no avoiding losses, and each military loss, especially in aviation - the most "graphic" and widely publicised US fighting service - will be taken very painfully by public opinion in America and only increase the already numerous opponents of the war in Iraq.
Trying to "minimise" losses and in general to avoid using their aircraft directly above Iraqi AD facilities, the allies are planning to deal a massive missile and bomb strike from a considerable distance and suppress air defences around Iraq, ensuring flight "freedom" for fighter and military transport aviation around Baghdad. Already in the first 48 hours of the operation it is planned to fire a total of 3,000 high-precision bombs and cruise missiles at the positions of Iraqi anti-aircraft forces.
No doubt, Iraqis will have tremendous losses, and the Baghdad air defence system will suffer a good deal, but - and this is evident - will not be destroyed completely. Former Soviet SA-3, SA-2, SA-6 and SA-8 air defence systems organic to Iraq's army can "bite" back, especially since lately Hussein has carried out a thorough modernisation of radar stations and deployed them on sectors most threatening to the enemy.
As acknowledged by the allied command, the Iraqis have deployed vast numbers of air defence artillery, large-calibre anti-aircraft machine guns, and mobile quick-firing twin anti-aircraft mountings of the Soviet ZU-23-2 type along the supposed routes of cruise missiles whose low altitudes and relatively low speeds make them vulnerable to such weapons.
The New York Times quotes American military intelligence sources as saying that the Iraqis have "surprises" ready for advancing infantry units, transport aviation and surveillance planes. All the territory around the Iraqi capital is covered with a dense network of trenches filled with oil. The oil will be set on fire as soon as the ground part of the operation begins. So fighting will be done in heavy smoke, and targeting data from air spotters will come in with considerable delays.
The grouping command's particular concern is that perhaps American troops will not be able to suppress and destroy at once the positions on Iraqi territory of Soviet-made surface-to-surface missiles Scud and Iraqi analogues - Ababil-100s, which are today deployed in the area of the Iraqi port of Basra and can well reach Kuwait's territory. Otherwise, the Americans will have to resort to their own Patriot air defence systems. They are of course effective, but one miss would be enough to call in doubt US legendary priority in the military sphere.
It is a matter of hours now before the first large-scale war of the 21st century begins, and American General Tom Franks, commander of the united allied grouping in the Persian Gulf area, is outspoken when he says: "I feel really superb," meaning the inevitable start of a military campaign.
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Not that long ago, American soldiers would train their skills to counter insurgent and partisan military organizations. These days, they are trained to show resistance to the regular army of a potential adversary