Richard Reeves

Fifteen Days From War and Perhaps Catastrophe

WASHINGTON -- President Bush went to the Washington Hilton last Wednesday evening to talk about postwar Iraq. He was applauded by 1,400 guests at the 40th anniversary dinner of the American Enterprise Institute as he said: "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations of the region ..."

And then: "We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more."

Across the street, one of the Americans who know Iraq best, Peter W. Galbraith, a former ambassador who is now a professor of national security studies at the National War College, was offering a more nuanced view of what might happen next. His audience was a group of 40 or so refugee workers and advocates called together by the Women's Commission for Women and Children Refugees. He thought that there was a 25 percent chance of a quick Iraqi capitulation and an orderly transfer of power.

Galbraith, who once handled the Iraq portfolio for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was last in the country six months ago, listed four possible war and postwar scenarios, with his own estimate of their probability:

"(1) Quick Iraqi surrender -- 25 percent; (2) chaotic Iraqi collapse -- 50 percent; (3) prolonged Iraqi resistance in urban areas -- 20 percent; (4) catastrophic use of weapons of mass destruction -- 5 percent."

"Chaos," the most likely scenario, he defined as including uncontrolled revenge killing and looting, particularly in the poor and overwhelmingly Shi'ite Muslim areas of southern Iraq and, possibly, in Baghdad as well. Also listed as possible was more controlled violence by hundreds of thousands of Kurds, expelled by Saddam from northern villages and homes after the 1991 Gulf War. Four thousand Kurdish villages were destroyed, covered over by Iraqi bulldozers, and more than 100,000 city homes given to Arabic Sunni Muslims.

"Armed Kurds, with or without leadership, are going to rush back to their homes and take them from the Arabs Saddam installed," Galbraith said. His estimate of the number of refugees that chaos would produce was 50,000, with 1 million more displaced inside the borders of Iraq.

The quick victory (for the United States) scenario, Galbraith estimates, would produce 20,000 refugees and 200,000 displaced persons.

In the "urban warfare" scenario, the Iraqi military, particularly the Sunni Republican Guards, would fight relatively effectively, perhaps even retreating into Baghdad and battling from house to house. Americans might have to go into the alleys of a city of 5 million people or lay siege to Baghdad in a very old-fashioned war. That, he estimated, would produce 75,000 refugees and 3 million displaced persons. (Many of the refugees and displaced would be "bad guys" -- that is, supporters of Saddam's regime on the run from their oppressed neighbors.)

Finally, said Galbraith, he thought there was a 5 percent chance -- "small but real" -- that Saddam would use "weapons of mass destruction" -- chemical and biological weapons -- against the Americans, the Kurds or Israel. In a nightmare scenario he laid out, Saddam would hit Israel and the Israelis would retaliate with nuclear weapons. He did add that he thought there was a high probability that if Saddam ordered the use of WMD, his generals would ignore the order; the historical model for that is German generals ignoring Hitler's orders to burn Paris as the Allies liberated the city in 1944.

That scenario would produce tens of thousands of deaths and, Galbraith's estimate, 4 million refugees and 11 million displaced Iraqis.

What of Saddam himself? "Dead man walking," answered Galbraith. "This is not Osama, with friends and an extensive underground network. Anywhere Saddam goes he will be killed. Iran, Turkey, the Kurdish regions, they would love to get their hands on him."

At the Hilton, meanwhile, President Bush was saying that the United States was well aware of the disruption war would cause and has given tens of millions of dollars to U.N. relief agencies -- suddenly the United Nations is very relevant when it comes to cleaning up the human mess of war -- and had more in the pipeline. To put that in persepective, as the relief workers listening to Galbraith did, the maximum amount mentioned by the United States, none of which has been delivered, is $35 million (with an "m") and the minimum cost of the war is now estimated at $85 billion (with a "b").

"Yes, there's a lot that has to be done quickly," Galbraith said of humanitarian aid. "But I guess that's not possible, is it? We are 15 days from war."

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