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War Plan

March 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And with me is Mark Thompson, Time Magazine’s military correspondent. Mark, this weekend’s events in Turkey, the Turkish parliament rejection of this basing plan is widely concerned to be a major setback for the U.S. military plans for making a go of this in Iraq — against Iraq. So how much of a setback was it militarily?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, U.S. Military will tell you, Gwen, and they’ve told me today down at central command in Florida that they have other options. But make no mistake about it. Going in through Turkey was their best option. That was going to get the most troops into northern Iraq as quickly as possible and really threaten Saddam Hussein. That seems to have been lost, as long as the Turkish parliament doesn’t reverse its course.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about what are likely to be the other options.

MARK THOMPSON: Sure. Right now we’ve got a bunch of ships in the eastern Mediterranean, they’re waiting to go into Turkey. If the red light stays red, they’re going to have to come down through the Suez Canal and go around the Arabian Peninsula and up to Kuwait, where there are lots of other ships waiting to get into ports there, and unload gear from the 101st Airborne Division and other U.S. military units. It’s going to take a week to ten days to get them out of the eastern med and over to Kuwait, perhaps another week to ten days to actually unload them and get them ready to fight, so you’re talking twenty, thirty days compared to maybe only ten in Turkey.

GWEN IFILL: There’s some talk about a second resolution. If the red light turns to green, is there another way besides going true the Suez Canal to get the appropriate troops and equipment on the ground?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, only if you go through Turkey. If you can’t go through Turkey there aren’t many other options. Northern Iraq is surrounded by Iran, Turkey and Syria, not good ways for U.S. military to get into northern Iraq. So I think they’ll have to come all the way around.

GWEN IFILL: Can you airlift equipment?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, if they do go to Kuwait they still will have a northern front, but lit be a skinny northern front. Instead of 60 thousand troops, it could be as few as six or ten or perhaps twenty thousand. And that’s just not going to be a real big force to come down and take Baghdad. It may stop the fighting between the Kurds and the Turks, and it may protect the oil wells up there that the U.S. is concerned that Saddam might light off. But it’s not going to be a big armored thrust into Baghdad.

GWEN IFILL: Well, what is the advantage of being able to approach this from the North as well as the South?

MARK THOMPSON: First of all, if you’re trying to beat somebody up and there’s only one guy you’re trying to fight, you can focus on him. If there’s two you’ve got to divert your attention, you never know where the blow is going to come from. Secondly, if you’ve got that conundrum, it forces you to, in terms of intelligence, terms of military might, just to divide everything up. The U.S. military believes that this war can go quickly only if it’s a multi-front approach going after Saddam from several directions at once. And if they only have a few number of troops in northern Iraq, they’re not going to be able to do that, pretty much everything is going to have to come up from Kuwait and Saddam will be able to focus his fire power there.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the oil wells in the northern part of Iraq, you’re talking about the American troops or the allied troops attempting to seize them, so that he doesn’t get to them first?

MARK THOMPSON: Right so, that he can’t blow them up. In the opening hours of the war, people at Central Command have made it very clear that in addition to getting scuds in western Iraq, one of our most important things is going to be getting those oil wells, along with sites where we think weapons of mass destruction are hidden. Those are the big three things to get for the U.S. military in the opening hours of the war, and that will be tougher to do if we can’t come right over the water from Turkey.

GWEN IFILL: You also alluded to the sensitivities involving the Kurds in that part of Iraq. How does that complicate the situation?

MARK THOMPSON: This is part of the deal. If the United States were allowed to go through Turkey, the Turks were going to be allowed to seem in some 40,000 troops along where the U.S. troops to come 12 miles into northern Iraq so that Kurds wouldn’t flee up in to Turkey as refugees and so bail the United States wanted a lot of force in northern Iraq, to basically keep the Kurds and Turks apart because they’ve been at war for decades up there over the Kurds’ desire to get an autonomous government.

GWEN IFILL: We’re not giving away any top military secrets, this has all been widely reported. But how does one begin — the military begin to coordinate a war when you can’t get your troops in place?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, Tommy Frank’s, the general for central channel has said all along I’ve got a budge of options, if this thing falls apart, I’ve got an option. But fundamentally this is the best option, they’re just going to have to schlep around the peninsula and it won’t be as knockout a punch.

GWEN IFILL: How much of a delay are we talking about?

MARK THOMPSON: The sense I get from military people is anywhere from ten days to two weeks. They could speed it up, optimally you might want to wait longer, but you have to trade that optimum preparation in exchange for tactical surprise and they might give up some of the optimum up readiness and grab the tactical surprise instead.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.