Panel Describes Long Weakening of Hussein Army

By JOHN H. CUSHMAN Jr.

The New York Times

July 11, 2004

WASHINGTON, July 10 The Senate's report on prewar intelligence about Iraq, which asserts that warnings about its illicit weapons were largely unfounded and that its ties to Al Qaeda were tenuous, also undermines another justification for the war: that Saddam Hussein's military posed a threat to regional stability and American interests.

In a detailed discussion of Iraq's prewar military posture, the report cites a long series of intelligence reports in the decade before the war that described a formerly potent army's spiral of decay under the weight of economic sanctions and American military pressure.

The main risk of an attack by Mr. Hussein against the United States and nations in the region was his unpredictability, these reports indicated. The reports found it especially hard to predict what he would do if threatened by the likelihood of American military action. But the Senate Intelligence Committee called this analysis relatively weak.

The committee's report implies that war opponents were essentially correct when they argued that Iraq posed little immediate threat to the United States. Before the war, those who held this view, both in Congress and at the United Nations, argued that continued containment was preferable to an invasion.

Although the report described a profound breakdown in the American intelligence system, both White House and Congressional officials say the political calendar will prevent any serious action until after the November elections.

In discussing the committee's report, the Bush administration has emphasized that the war was worthwhile because it removed a threatening dictator from power.

"He was a dangerous man," President Bush said Friday. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power. America is safer."

In the debate before the war, administration officials sometimes made the same argument, but with not nearly the emphasis that they gave to threats from chemical weapons or terrorism. They sometimes mentioned risks that Iraq would use Scuds or other shorter-range conventional missiles, or they brought up its antiaircraft attacks on American patrols over the no-flight zones in the north and south of the country. They also spoke of continuing military dangers to Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In a speech in January 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld interspersed claims about chemical and biological weapons and terrorism with conventional military threats to argue that "Iraq poses a threat to the security of our people and to the stability of the world."

"Iraq has invaded two of its neighbors and has launched ballistic missiles at four of its neighbors," he said, adding that it "is the only country in the world that fires missiles and artillery at U.S. and coalition aircraft on an almost daily basis."

The intelligence agencies should have offered Congress and other policymakers a comprehensive, unified view of these risks before the war, the Senate Intelligence Committee said, but they never did.

After reviewing about 400 analytical documents written by the intelligence agencies from 1991, after the first gulf war, to 2003, when Mr. Hussein was toppled, the committee unanimously concluded that "the body of assessments showed that Iraqi military capabilities had steadily degraded following defeat in the first gulf war in 1991. Analysts also believed those capabilities would continue to erode as long as economic sanctions remained in place."

The intelligence agencies, though, were much less certain about Mr. Hussein's intentions, the committee said. "The assessments came to the same general conclusions that Saddam Hussein: was unpredictable and aggressive; retained the capability to strike militarily in the region; and, would probably not choose to use force against neighbors as long as U.S. and coalition forces were in the region."

"Clearly, the issue of Saddam's intentions to use force against his neighbors and U.S. and coalition forces was a high-interest matter," the report said, "and, unfortunately, the main area where the intelligence community was least confident in its analysis."

It criticized the agencies for failing "to clearly characterize changes in Iraq's threat to regional stability and security, taking account of the fact that its conventional military forces steadily degraded after 1990."

In September 1991, a report on Mr. Hussein's "prospects for survival over the next year" found that Iraq would have "only limited capabilities to endanger U.S. interests."

By 1993, an assessment said Mr. Hussein's basic goals were to maintain power "by any means," to regain internal control, to rebuild the military, including illicit weapons, and to make Iraq "the dominant regional power." But the agencies warned that they were "hindered by the dearth of solid information."

An assessment in early 1995 called Iraq "an immediate source of concern and a long-term threat to U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf," but the State Department's view in the document called it "impossible to predict with confidence whether Saddam will choose confrontation or opt for a period of quiescence and cooperation." The military's view in the document was that Iraq had "at least some chance" of striking quickly into Saudi oil fields.

Other reports that year warned of Mr. Hussein's "unpredictability and proclivity for dramatic and rash behavior" but said only "marginal" rebuilding of the military had occurred. Without a "large, standing coalition military presence" in the region, one said, there could be no guarantee of deterring him.

From about 1999 on, though, assessments "noted that the condition of all Iraqi military branches was poor," the Senate committee found.

In 2002, a report judged "that Iraqi military morale and battlefield cohesion are more fragile today than in 1991."

By January 2003, an assessment found that "Saddam probably will not initiate hostilities for fear of providing Washington with justification to invade Iraq. Nevertheless, he might deal the first blow, especially if he perceives that an attack intended to end his regime is imminent."

By March 17, 2003, Mr. Bush promised that the time of such risks was about to end.

"In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors," he said. "The tyrant will soon be gone."