W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 22, 2000 -- Large-scale Iraqi troop movements have forced the United States into watch-and-wait mode as it monitors signs of a possible military showdown on the Persian Gulf.
ABCNEWS has learned U.S. intelligence agencies have been closely watching Iraqi military movements around the clock since early this week, when virtually the entire Iraqi army and its elite Republican Guard force left their barracks, army bases and airfields and dispersed throughout the country.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the current dispersal of Iraqi forces was solely “defensive”. They believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has ordered the movements because he believes the United States is about to attack Iraq.
The dispersal of Iraqi units began around Tuesday and now appears to be complete. Most of the movements have been in northern Iraq, but there have been a few dispersals to the south as well.
Armor, artillery and infantry units from regular Iraqi army forces were dispersed in addition to the Republican Guard..
Movements Have Been Defensive
So far, there have been several key indicators that the movements are purely defensive.
There are, for instance, no signs of transporters or rail cars that would be needed to move large tanks and armor to front-line positions, either to attack the Kurdish minorities in the north or to move toward Kuwait’s oil fields in the south.
U.S. officials tell ABCNEWS that the dispersed tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery are deployed in patterns that do not appear to be steps toward assuming attack positions.
There are also no signs of significant amounts of fuel, munitions, food or water supplies being shipped to the dispersed areas in preparation for a military campaign. But many of the ground forces, as well as Iraqi air force fighters, have been placed in civilian areas, making it difficult for the United States and its allies to target them.
The dispersed aircraft include several MiG-21s, which the Iraqi air force has tried to keep from being destroyed by the United States.
Movements Unsettle U.S. Officials
Although apparently purely defensive, the military movements have unsettled some U.S. officials because Iraqi military forces could launch an attack — especially in the north — at any time if key steps were taken to provide the logistical support those forces would need.
The Iraqi military is currently believed to have 23 military divisions, including six Republican Guard divisions. By comparison, during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, there was a total of 54, including eight Republican Guard divisions. The current divisions are largely comprised of armor and mechanized infantry.
Iraq maintains a military force of about 325,000 troops.
Before the military movements this week, there were 13 divisions — including some Republican Guard units — deployed in the north, roughly along the “line of trace” with the Kurdish minorities.
There are seven divisions in southern Iraq, all regular army units patrolling to keep control of the Shiite minorities. There are also three heavy armor and mechanized divisions of Republican Guard around Baghdad, charged with keeping control of the capital.
The size of Iraqi divisions varies but can run anywhere from 9,000 to 13,000 troops.
U.S. officials said one reason Saddam may believe the United States is readying an attack may be the presence of two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf over the past few days.
The USS Abraham Lincoln is scheduled to begin operating near the Strait of Hormuz on Monday, at the same time the USS George Washington will begin sailing out of the Gulf.
The George Washington is headed for the Mediterranean and expects to be there just after Oct. 1.