Browse Topics



Support from:

Now with Bill Moyers on PBS

Profile: Michael O'Hanlong And Michael Eisenstadt Discuss How Iraq Could Retaliate For A Military Strike

All Things Considered: February 15, 2003

Detailing Iraq's Options: Scuds, Drones, Hostages


But first, Iraq is promising retaliation for any US attack. In recent weeks, Iraqi officials have threatened to punish Kuwait, which is a base for US forces. And Saddam Hussein's son promised attacks against the United States that will make the September 11 attacks, he said, seem like a picnic. This is one of the most contentious points in the debate over Iraq. The Bush administration says the Iraqi threat is so grave that it justifies military action. Administration critics suggest that a US attack may only provoke Iraq to use chemical or biological weapons.

In the next few minutes, we'll try to gauge the Iraqi leader's ability to strike back. The single biggest nightmare may be an Iraqi-inspired terrorist attack against the United States. Military analyst Michael O'Hanlon says the US has to take that possibility seriously, but The Brookings Institution senior fellow says Iraq's power may be limited.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution): I think Saddam would have very few reasons to hold back, if he thought he was going down anyway. And so Saddam's intentions cannot be very reassuring. The only question is what are his capabilities? Can he actually pull off this kind of a major attack? There is some good news here. Iraqi intelligence is not believed to be very good at infiltrating agents into Western countries or Israel or even Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, for that matter, and conducting major attacks. They are not of the caliber, of, let's say, Hezbollah, which does have the ability to reach out globally and do great damage.

INSKEEP: The Bush administration warns that Iraq could provide weapons of mass destruction to the al-Qaeda network, though some US intelligence officials and outside analysts doubt that Iraq and al-Qaeda could cooperate that closely.

Iraq's military may pose a more immediate danger to the US and its allies. In 1991, Iraq fired Scud missiles at Saudi Arabia and Israel. US intelligence officials believe Iraq may have a handful of those missiles left, and last October, President Bush described a broad Iraqi threat.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Iraq possesses ballistic missiles with a likely range of hundreds of miles, far enough to strike Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and other nations in a region where more than 135,000 American civilians and service members live and work.

INSKEEP: The president and CIA Director George Tenet also contend that Iraq has drones, unmanned planes, possibly modified to carry chemical or biological weapons. The president was making a case for disarming Iraq, though some administration critics used the same information to argue against a war. Some US officials fear that if Iraq strikes Israel with weapons of mass destruction, Israel may strike back, and Israel has its own weapons of mass destruction.

Though it's a dismaying scenario, analyst Michael O'Hanlon says Israel has already taken the precaution of deploying missile defense systems.

Mr. O'HANLON: I think the chances of any given Scud being intercepted are probably pretty high, probably better than 50 percent, maybe even better than 75 percent. And then once they read their targets, they're probably going to miss the targets by a half mile or a mile because these are very inaccurate weapons. And then finally, they're also not very good at dispensing chemical or biological agent at the proper altitude.

INSKEEP: What about the drones?

Mr. O'HANLON: The drones are a little more mysterious. We don't know as much about them. We haven't seen them in action before. But unmanned aircraft are not particularly sophisticated, probably within Saddam's basic technological grasp, and he has some populations and some targets that he could attack that are pretty close by, whether it's the Kurds in his own country or the Kuwaitis in Kuwait City. He has some targets that would be within a hundred miles of places where his military forces routinely operate. So if he's able to sneak those drones in to forward positions and then launch them, I think there is a chance of anywhere from a few to a half dozen to maybe even a dozen of those drones actually reaching their targets without being shot down.

INSKEEP: The people most vulnerable to Iraqi retaliation may be the people who are now under Baghdad's control. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein turned the remains of his army against Iraqis who revolted. Michael Eisenstadt says war planners have to prepare for that to happen again. Eisenstadt is a former Pentagon analyst who now studies Iraq at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. MICHAEL EISENSTADT (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy): It's possible that the Iraqi military might turn their guns on the Iraqi people. The regime might use chemical or biological weapons against population centers.

INSKEEP: It sounds like if a war starts, that one way or another, a lot of Iraqis could very well get killed, a lot of Iraqi civilians.

Mr. EISENSTADT: Well, it's quite possible that the regime in Baghdad might see advantage to be gained from inflicting maximum casualties on its own people, first, based on the calculation that it might not be clear who inflicted the suffering on the Iraqi people. And then the bottom line is I think part--at least some people in some countries in the world would be inclined to say that even if it is the regime in Baghdad that did this, `Well, what do you expect? We knew that it was a vicious regime and that it was the US military action which brought about these kind of actions, and that's what happens when you tangle with a regime such as this.'

INSKEEP: There are several hundred Westerners in Iraq right now.


INSKEEP: In Baghdad--reporters, weapons inspectors and so forth.


INSKEEP: What thought would you give to hostages as war draws closer?

Mr. EISENSTADT: Well, we know that was a problem in the run-up to the war in 1991. And interestingly, after the 1991 war, there was a report in the Iraqi press and supposedly one of the lessons that Saddam Hussein learned was that it was a mistake for him to release the hostages, that he should have held onto the hostages.

INSKEEP: In 1991, Iraq freed Western diplomats and other hostages, left Western journalists alone, so they could report Iraq's side of the story. But Michael Eisenstadt says the stakes may be higher this time for Saddam Hussein.

If the United States goes to war against Iraq, the US will be racing to remove Saddam Hussein quickly before he has a chance to order a devastating response.

Copyright 2003 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information, please contact NPR's Permissions Coordinator at (202) 513-2000.

This transcript was created by a contractor for NPR, and NPR has not verified its accuracy. For all NPR programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version.