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American preparations for a major offensive against Iraq are massive and continuous, set in place layer by layer — but sources say a seven-nation attack on Saddam Hussein is not likely before mid- to late-February.

Military sources disclose that over the coming weekend, U.S. fighter plane and bomber squadrons will be flying into three air bases: Kuwait, Egypt’s Sinai Desert and the Israeli Negev. Call-ups issued in early December have mobilized 10,000 U.S. military personnel, air crews and Air Force intelligence officers and technicians, who were ordered to report for duty after New Year’s Day. Last month, the U.S. Third Army command, led by Lt. Gen. Paul Mikolashek, transferred to Kuwait from its peacetime headquarters in Fort McPherson.

When the attack comes, high on the coalition’s agenda will be targeting Iraq’s newly discovered super-cannons, which now number three or four, according to intelligence sources.

U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force might is being assembled in Israel. In the central and southern regions, U.S. emergency stores of armor, artillery, combat helicopters and military vehicles have been opened up. Equipment has been readied for war, fitted with sensitive electronic communications systems and loaded with ammunition. From early December, ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet have been entering the Israeli Mediterranean port of Haifa. They carry large quantities of drugs to counter poison gas, chemical and biological attacks, as well as protective equipment against nuclear radiation for Israelis and for American personnel in Israel and the Sinai.

The Third Army, now on the move toward the Middle East, numbers nine divisions, among them the 82nd Airborne, 101st Air Assault, 24th Infantry (Mechanized), 1st Infantry (Mechanized), 1st Cavalry, 1st Armored and 3rd Armored. By early February, 75,000 U.S. troops will be positioned on the Iraqi front.

This high concentration of military personnel means that Washington’s concept of the Iraqi campaign is quite different from its approach to the war in Afghanistan, where few U.S. servicemen were deployed outside the Air Force. The Iraqi theater will be broad and multinational, involving at least seven countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. The ultimate line-up will be determined by political and military developments in the region. But U.S. military planners are counting the armies of three nations – Turkey, Israel and Jordan – as combatant alongside U.S. forces.

Military sources sketch the following preliminary blueprint for the yet-to-be finalized U.S. assault plan. It will come in the form of a simultaneous three-prong offensive:

Target One: Iraq’s political power centers and military headquarters – most of which have already been moved to safe underground quarters – will be hit from the air by bombs and missiles.

Target Two: Turkish armor and infantry, backed by local Kurdish tribes, will lead off the ground campaign in northern Iraq. Negotiations to co-opt the local Kurds are still going on.

Target Three: U.S., Israeli and Jordanian elite infantry and Special Forces will raid army concentrations and convoys and hit Iraqi warplanes and missile batteries in their bases in an area stretching from central Iraq to the north, including the Iraqi Western Desert. These essentially hit-and-run forays will aim to destroy command centers, anti-aircraft systems, artillery and tanks, without miring the troops in lengthy skirmishes.

This tactic was prompted by the latest intelligence reaching U.S. military planners whereby Saddam Hussein was reported to be taking a leaf out of the 1991 Gulf War manual and the Afghanistan War guidelines, to institute a new strategy. He has ordered the breakup of the large Republican Guard armored divisions, formerly the backbone of Iraq’s main fighting force, into small mobile units, capable of autonomous operation for long periods over broad stretches of territory.

By this fragmentation of its military strength, Iraq hopes to:

1. Confound U.S., Israeli and Turkish air forces by compelling them to chase fast, small, low-profile units that are hard to find, attack and destroy.

2. Level the playing field by drawing them into pursuing units that challenge U.S., Turkish, Israeli and Jordanian crack ground forces and divert them from strategic Iraqi forces and facilities.

Those newly formed Iraqi units are designed to move out swiftly, rendezvous, return to base or revert to their old configuration as large armored divisions — whatever is required by the exigencies of battle. U.S. spy satellites have followed recent Iraqi exercises, in which contingents were split up, scattered in new positions within four hours of receiving their orders, then regrouped into their former large mold less than six hours later.

These small units will be rendered self-sufficient by the hundreds of underground fuel, ammunition and food stores dispersed around the center and north of the country. The Iraqis have also formed small mobile technical units for backup service.

Accepting that U.S., Turkish and Israeli warplanes will command the skies, Iraqi military planners have equipped the new mobile units with state of the art weaponry. According to military intelligence sources, the Republican Guard units were recently handed out the locally manufactured long-range, hand-held laser sidearm, capable of inflicting severe burns and total blindness. This space age system, fitted with a laser rangefinder, can damage its target’s retina and other parts of his body, as well as causing severe internal hemorrhaging. Iraqi forces have been spotted by intelligence practice-firing these devices against low-flying warplanes and helicopters. Their object is to incapacitate pilots and cause enemy aircraft to crash.

Iraq used a primitive version of this laser weapon mounted on tanks in its war against Iran in the late 1980s. Although inexperienced in its operation at the time, Iraqi forces were able to inflict more than 5,000 Iranian casualties, most permanently blinded or victims of internal organ damage.

Additional intelligence information suggests the new Iraqi units are also equipped with tactical chemical weapons, whose precise nature and mode of operation are unknown. Iraq is thought to have prepared large stocks of anti-tank missile tubes, converted to the propulsion of small canisters of Sarin, Tabun and VX nerve and mustard gases onto a battlefield, where they explode and spread their deadly contents over a wide area.

Iraq’s tactical preparations for a major assault are likely to cause delays in U.S. scheduling of its war offensive. The Americans, Turks and Israelis may well need more time than they thought at first to contend with Iraqi’s new unit structure and vicious weaponry.

According to military sources, the Pentagon has picked northern Iraq as its first ground target for good reason. Intelligence information shows that Saddam and his immediate circle of Baath party leaders have already moved their offices and families to an underground city near the northern oil city of Kirkuk. It is located between the three cities of Tepe Zardic north of Kirkuk, Taq south of Koi Sanjaq, and Chwarta north of Sulmeniyeh. Several intelligence reports place the secret city on the banks of the Lesser Zab River, protected from the east — the border with Iran — by the Dukan Dam and Iraq’s largest artificial lake.

According to sources, this subterranean complex was first built as a storage facility for nuclear bombs and explosives. But since 1995, under Saddam’s direction, it has expanded into a network of tunnels, roads, living quarters, offices, communications centers and radio and television facilities, from which the Baath regime expects to continue ruling the country under a U.S. attack.

Members of private Italian engineering firms who sold Iraq industrial components for uranium enrichment in 1993 and 1994 are the only foreigners known to have visited the buried city. After U.S. Special Forces locate its whereabouts, U.S. military tacticians plan to destroy it with the help of the same airborne missiles and bunker-blasting bombs that were fired against Afghanistan’s cave systems – especially the AGM-86 B cruise missile. Following the aerial assault, ground forces will storm the tunnels leading into the secret city.

Their hope is that the capture and fall of his underground metropolis will suffice to bring Saddam’s regime crashing down. On the other hand, the Iraqi leader will certainly have had the foresight to build an extensive system of escape tunnels to take him in safety to central and southern Iraq if his secret city comes under attack.

Saddam’s super-cannon of pre-Gulf War fame is making a comeback. In its newly adapted form, the fabled monster gun has been designed to fire nuclear, chemical and biological shells at U.S. military targets in the Gulf, Middle East, Red Sea and Mediterranean, as well as targeting Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and Israel.

In its original form, the gun was capable of firing a warhead at Tehran or Tel Aviv, having a range of 1,500 miles or more, if boosted by a rocket.

In 1985, in the closing days of the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam hired the super gun’s inventor, Canadian astrophysicist Gerald Bull, arguably the most prominent scientist in the missile and artillery field in the 1970s and 1980s. Bull helped improve the accuracy of Iraq’s self-propelled artillery and Scud missiles, but he mainly dealt with constructing a 424 mm cannon that could fire quarter-ton shells more than 1,700 miles.

Bull was murdered in Brussels in 1990. Newspaper reports said Israel’s Mossad killed him to foil the super gun project. Another theory said he fell victim to Iraqi intelligence assassins because of Saddam’s suspicion that he was cooperating with Israel through South African contacts. The real story is still unknown. After Bull’s death, Iraq was left with the scientist’s plans but without the manpower or technical know-how to complete the project.

But Saddam never gave up his grandiose plans for the super gun. One was to blast into orbit the military satellites he was building just before the 1991 Gulf War. In 1992 and 1995, experiments were made to launch spacecraft that would collide with enemy satellites making surveillance passes over Iraqi territory. On impact, the spacecraft was to explode and spray the satellites with an adhesive substance that would render their cameras and surveillance equipment useless.

Touting his super gun, Saddam once boasted a missile could be launched only once but a cannon could be used repeatedly to fire projectiles.

According to sources, U.S. and Israeli intelligence were surprised to discover not one but three or four super guns just turned up in Iraq’s arsenal – weapons far more advanced and effective than the cannon Bull developed. It comes in two versions.

The largest has a 1,000 mm diameter barrel, 260 meters (248 yards) long and a maximum range of 2,000 miles. The barrel of the smaller version is 350 mm in diameter and 30 meters (32 yards) long. Its range is up to 250 miles. The Iraqis may have two of each, hidden in Saddam’s underground city. They remained undiscovered for so long because they were dismantled and concealed in segments – the barrel of the biggest super gun is made up of 35 separate pipes. It was only when the Iraqis started assembling the super guns that U.S. and Israeli satellites spied them out.

Since most intelligence experts concede Iraq has been capable of building radiological weapons since 1991, its super guns – which can deliver a nuclear payload over great distances – will be one of the first goals of the U.S.-led campaign. Killing the super gun could be the boldest move in Washington’s global war against terrorism.

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