RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf said yesterday that the Iraqi military machine was on the verge of collapse and was losing about two battalions of tanks a day to allied air strikes, an attrition rate that no army can survive.
In assessing 34 days of warfare, the commander of Operation Desert Storm said Iraq's military capabilities probably had been overrated from the start. Its performance, he said, has reflected something that the allies knew intuitively last fall but seldom talked about publicly: After fighting Iran for eight years, the Iraqi army was simply tired of war and had no real desire to go into battle again.
"Even though they had a large military and probably a very capable one for this part of the world," he said, matched against "the sophistication of the U.S. military, there is no comparison. They grossly underestimated the type of war they were getting involved with, and they've paid a price for that."
General Schwarzkopf tempered his optimistic assessment with some caution during a 90-minute interview but gave every impression that an overwhelming military victory is within the grasp of the 700,000-member force aligned against Iraq.
He portrayed the Iraqi forces as being increasingly demoralized, beset with deserters braving execution squads to flee home and commanded by an inept leader, Saddam Hussein, who is reduced to communicating with some units by courier.
"Iraq's military is hurting and hurting very badly," he said. "Our assessment of them is that they are on the verge of collapse."
If there is a ground war -- the general used that conditional phrase several times -- he said he felt sure that Mr. Hussein would use artillery to deliver chemical weapons against allied troops and would attempt to resurrect the remnants of his air force for the same purpose.
Mindful of the ill-founded confidence often expressed by U.S. commanders in Vietnam, where he served two tours, General Schwarzkopf said: "I don't want anyone to think I have assumed away the capabilities of the enemy, because I can still draw up 15 scenarios every day that will cause us a lot of problems. . . . I am not saying the Iraqi military is broken yet.
"But let's put it this way. If I was getting the same pattern of reports about my forces [that Mr. Hussein is getting about his], I'd be dreadfully worried."
When asked whether he would consider his military mission successful if Iraq withdrew unconditionally from Kuwait, even though Mr. Hussein might remain in power with part of his military intact, he replied: "Absolutely."
"The president has said all along that we weren't out to destroy the country of Iraq, we weren't out to destroy the army of Iraq," he said.
Still, General Schwarzkopf said, "I think many of the [Arab] leaders of the coalition would like to see us go a step further and deny him [Mr. Hussein] the military that keeps him in power."
However, the general added, "The Iraqi military has suffered so much damage that even if everything stopped today and Saddam Hussein walked out the door, Iraq would have a very dramatic setback in its military. And if they leave Kuwait quickly, they may have to leave a lot of stuff behind because, like some of the T-72 tanks that are sitting there buried in sand, some things just aren't going to run."
Giving an example of the allies' selective targeting and limited military goals, General Schwarzkopf said Iraq's ability to produce oil had not been damaged -- "something we could have done very easily."
General Schwarzkopf said the only real surprises of the war thus far were how effectively the allied Central Command had pegged Iraq's military weaknesses, such as its inability to maintain long supply lines, and how poorly the Iraqis had performed.
The general commented that Iraq's Scud missiles were so inaccurate that he didn't even bother to get out of the shower during the last missile attack on Riyadh. And their only offensive effort, at the border town of Khafji, was "a joke, an absolute joke," he said.
"We fully expected on Day No. 1 for him to do something," General Schwarzkopf said. "We've been waiting around for something to happen. Some sort of offensive thrust, some counterattack, something. And the only thing he could put together was Khafji.
"I thought, back when the war began, that we'd have had more aircraft losses by now, more air-to-air combat," he said. "But instead it's been like a beagle chasing a rabbit. It's been all pleasant surprises."
When the war is over, General Schwarzkopf said, the United States has no intention of maintaining a large military presence in the region and dominating the Persian Gulf. Nor does it want a permanent base in the region, he said.