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The great unknown is the pace at which the American war plan will be put into action. The difference between the looming second Gulf War and its predecessor (if we don't take into account the actual first war in the Persian Gulf, between Iraq and Iran, which went on from 1980 to 1988) is comparable to the difference between the Sinai Campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War 11 years later - and not only because even then the French did a about turn between the two wars in terms of the Israeli connection). In 1956, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought within the framework of an alliance (with France and Britain) and succeeded, despite the conservatism and the mistakes of the high command. By the time of the 1967 war, the IDF had a different structure, which was far better suited to it.

Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who advanced in the hierarchy from one war to the next - like the chief of staff in the Sinai Campaign, Moshe Dayan, who was defense minister in the Six-Day War - are only the political level that is assisting the commander- in-chief, President George W. Bush, to articulate the goals of the war. More germane to the functioning of the army are the staff and field officers: the IDF's brigade commanders in 1956 - Ariel Sharon, Yisrael Tal and Avraham Yoffe - were the divisional commanders in Sinai in the 1967 war. The 1991 battalion and brigade commanders on the ground and squadron and wing commanders in the air have become the core and theater commanders and the staff chiefs of the war in 2003.

The commanders of the fighting divisions of a dozen years ago rose quickly through the ranks afterward and have already retired. Battalion and brigade commanders in the United States Army are five to eight years older than their Israeli counterparts, but their promotion to senior posts, if they are found deserving, is more rapid than in Israel - in some cases on an average of a rank every two years. The new commander of NATO forces and the 14th Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General James Jones, commanded a brigade of the U.S. Marine Corps in 1991. The commander of a battalion of paratroops, who operated under Jones in northern Iraq, General John Abizaid, is now deputy commander of the U.S. forces in the Middle East and Afghanistan under General Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command.

In 1991, the Americans deployed initially to stem the continuation of the Iraqi invasion - from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia - and even after pounding the Iraqi forces for five weeks from the air, the Americans continued to be apprehensive that the allies' ground offensive would meet an Iraqi counter-offensive. This time the Americans have no such concerns and have deployed their forces strictly for an offensive, based on simple principles: a simultaneous strike at the key centers of the Iraqi regime and its special military disposition (missiles, weapons of mass destruction, security services), bypassing centers of resistance and shocking the enemy into submission.

The most reliable testimonies about the Americans' operational plans are to be found in the military doctrine and in announcements of officer appointments to key positions. These testimonies are backed up by circumstantial evidence: the preference that has been given to the buildup of the ground forces in and around the region over the possibility of making do with air and missile power, which could have been concentrated and activated many months ago. It follows that the commander of the campaign, General Franks, who is from the land arm, has got his superiors, Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to sign off on his plan. The chiefs of staff are not part of the chain of command, but engage only in force building - though the chairman of the joint chiefs holds a special senior position as the chief military adviser to the president and the defense secretary.

Five command forces - air, sea, land, Marines and Special Forces - operate under Franks. The air commander, to whom the squadrons that belong to the navy (and operate from aircraft carriers) and the Marines are subordinate, is responsible for firepower, the land commander for maneuvering. Last September, Lieutenant General David McKiernan, until then the army's deputy chief of staff for operations, was named chief of the Coalition Forces Land Component Command. General Richard Cody, formerly head of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was named chief of operations. In the 1991 Gulf War, Cody, an attack helicopter pilot by training, was commander of the helicopter battalion of the division that created an air corridor for the warplanes on their way to Baghdad. The 101st division executed a deep flank of the Iraqi army, and it can expect to be given similar missions this time around, too.

Land wars require land forces, McKiernan wrote recently in the monthly magazine Army, a concept that is expanded in the training literature of the land arm: precision munitions (missiles and bombs) are important and effective but can be defended against by means of force dispersal and concealment. What is needed, therefore, is a ground force that renders the impact of fire constant; that will, in other words, seize control, take prisoners, ascertain destruction, dismantle the grip of the security apparatuses on the population, occupy and rehabilitate.

Air power is intended for assault, but liberation - as the Americans purport to liberate Iraq from the clutches of Saddam Hussein - can be achieved only if the air fire is followed by ground maneuvering. Maneuvering of this type would be possible even with a smaller force, about a third as great as the force that now exists in the Gulf, but Franks wants additional safeguards in case of entanglement in the first steps, should it turn out that the force is not large enough, the execution not swift enough and the number of casualties on both sides is increasing to the point where political and international support is undermined, thus threatening the success of the entire campaign. Only a quick victory will be considered a success; a protracted stalemate will be a loss.

That victory, which is pre-assured in the light of the balance of military forces, must be accompanied by a moral dimension. With that in mind, the U.S. armed forces have devoted a special section of their preparations to the subject of "sensitive sites and their exploitation." These are facilities for the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (both in order to prevent a disaster befalling the forces and the population when the facilities are blown up, and to preclude another edition of the "Gulf War syndrome"); Saddam's overt and underground fortresses; command posts or living quarters of senior figures; caches of incriminating documents; and sites that prove the existence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, such as death camps and mass graves.

As in 1945, the advancing forces in the field are liable to discover terrible secrets, the commanders were told, in explanation of their singular mission of identifying the sites in question, preserving the horrific evidence for political and publicity purposes (and for the trials of the war criminals), preventing looting and treating survivors and victims. Special teams have been set up to examine sensitive sites, to which the combat units - a reinforced infantry company at each site - will be subordinate. If possible, they will be accompanied by female soldiers to carry out body searches of Iraqi women who will be detained and interrogated on the spot.

If we can judge by these thorough preparations, Bush and his advisers know what they are looking for in Iraq. What they don't know is exactly what they will find, and in what condition, should this indeed turn out to be an "asymmetrical war" in which the weak side commits suicide or liquidates its citizens and destroys their property in order to induce the international community to bring about a cessation of the war. Here, in fact, lies the only basis for Israeli concern: a sane Iraqi pilot, if ordered to scatter chemical or biological agents over Israel, will salute, take off and head west (along the route by which the pilot of an Iraqi MiG-21 defected in 1996), and at the first opportunity, over Jordan, will eject and let his death plane bury itself in the desert. But what if his children are being held as hostages by Saddam's torture experts, pending media reports of the attack on Tel Aviv?