In the streets of Iraq, ask how long it will take to topple Saddam and you will get the same answer, whether you ask the fruit vendor in his apron or the mayor in shirtsleeves and tie. Two weeks, they say, and Saddam will be finished.
In America, media and foreign policy elites have no such confidence. And it is right to measure twice and cut once on Iraq. In the current debate frenzy, however, speculation tends to call more loudly than known facts.
What's known about Saddam's military strength is that it is roughly 65-75 percent of Gulf War levels. Even in decline, it remains the most powerful army in the Gulf. Compared to U.S. force levels and technical prowess acquired post-Gulf, it's a contest the United States should win with one fist tied behind its back.
More open to speculation is Saddam's unconventional forces. Presumably Saddam kicked out international weapons inspectors four years ago because he has something to hide. The sanctions regime has hurt his ability to import large-item military weapons but not chemical and biological weapons, and perhaps even nuclear components. Such weapons of mass destruction can be hatched in a trailer on the back of a truck.
We know in recent years Saddam has strived to make weaponry more mobile. And, like Osama bin Laden, to hide what he is doing underground. When he visited Saddam a few weeks ago, George Galloway, a liberal member of the British Parliament who moonlights as a Baghdad apologist, spent 20 seconds descending by elevator to an underground command post.
All of which is why, in going to war with Iraq, "we will go to war with forces that are the military equivalent of a wounded poisonous snake," says defense analyst Anthony Cordesman.
High-level security clearance isn't necessary to speculate on how such a war will come off. U.S. air power will move quickly to take out key targets, softening enemy strength with an air campaign of 300-400 offensive sorties a day. Heavy and light ground forces must follow. It's good to remember the Republican Guards ran from U.S. forces in 1991, but necessary to be prepared to defeat them finally.
And at just about this point Americans (and Israelis who fear a repeat of Scud attacks) start to feel afraid. And that's the time to go back to the Iraqi street, where there is more to fear from both a U.S. assault and retaliation by Saddam. Yet average Iraqis know there is no popular support left for Saddam inside his country. If the Bush administration shows itself serious about regime change, a Kurdish opposition figure in Iraq told WORLD last week, "those inside Iraq are capable of making the change with the support of Iraqi army deserters."
War calculations overlook the self-propelling dynamic of installing a people's government. Democracies, even fledgling ones, tend to let people get on with the job of living.
In territory protected by U.S. no-fly zone patrols, Iraqis already taste the future. A high-rise hotel in Sulimaniyah provides a panoramic view of Azadi Park. Azadi means freedom. Beneath leafy walkways mothers stroll babies and families play ball. The park is a memorial, planted over an underground prison used before the Gulf War to torture Saddam's opponents. Western reporters onsite at the time have attested to its warren of dark prisons, excrement caking the floors, and meat hooks in the ceilings. A rape room was identifiable by the women's clothes piled at its doorstep. This is the past that makes a future war worth winning.