WASHINGTON -- As Desert Storm reached a climax Feb. 27, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf measured the triumph in terms of the anticipated destruction of 4,500 Iraqi tanks that Saddam Hussein had used to dominate the Persian Gulf.
"There's not enough [armor] left for him to be a regional threat," Gen. Schwarzkopf said in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "Most of the army that is left is an infantry army; it's not an armored army, which means it really isn't an offensive army."
Within the next three hours, President Bush overrode the Desert Storm commander's plan to capture or destroy hundreds of tanks in the hands of three Republican Guard divisions trapped by U.S. forces near Basra, Iraq.
Instead, Mr. Bush ordered a cease-fire 28 hours ahead of Gen. Schwarzkopf's schedule. At least 700 tanks -- mostly top-line T-72s -- and 57,000 troops escaped.
Those Iraqi tanks and troops were factors in a less-public decision by Mr. Bush. According to administration officials, they were spared to aid what the White House believed would be an overthrow of Mr. Hussein by Iraqi generals.
According to interviews with White House and other senior administration officials, the decision Feb. 27 also reflected Mr. Bush's determination to preserve the Baathist Baghdad government as a counterweight to regional enemies and as the world's No. 2 oil exporter.
"We were not going to leave the world's second-largest oil
exporter without some means of self-defense," said a senior administration official, a Mideast expert.
But instead of overthrowing the Iraqi president, the generals rallied to his support as he crushed a bloody rebellion that the White House had failed to predict.
"I wouldn't say it 'backfired,' " said one White House official of the plan. "It just didn't work out the way we expected."
Now, almost four months later, administration officials acknowledge that those 700 tanks have become the nucleus for what one Pentagon official termed a "remarkable" revival of Iraq's armored forces. U.S. intelligence reports that Mr. Hussein has equipped his army with between 2,500 and 3,000 tanks.
Part of that force -- more than 1,500 older Soviet-made T-55s and T-60s -- came from unmarked warehouses and garrisons that eluded targeting during the 42-day allied campaign, U.S. officials said. Hundreds of other tanks are the product of Mr. Hussein's aggressive postwar program of rebuilding battlefield wrecks with cannibalized and newly manufactured parts.
"Historians are going to argue . . . forever" over Mr. Bush's decision to stop, General Schwarzkopf said later. Throughout the war, the Desert Storm commander's stated objective was destruction of Mr. Hussein's elite troops, the Republican Guard.
But Mr. Bush's decision preserved Republican Guard and other top-line units.
Interviews with key participants in Mr. Bush's decision have uncovered a series of White House miscalculations and failures that raise major questions about the dimensions of victory.
For example, Mr. Bush has repeatedly insisted that Mr. Hussein was a secondary target in allied efforts to destroy Iraq's military command structure. Today, however, Mr. Hussein's survival is considered a major failure by administration officials who are now concerned about his comeback.
Some of those advisers blame the Central Intelligence Agency's inability to locate Mr. Hussein's hideouts. After the war ended, the president named a senior adviser, Robert M. Gates, as the new CIA director.
Insiders say it was Mr. Gates, the deputy director of the National Security Council, who shaped a White House consensus that a relative calm would prevail in a postwar Iraq and contended that the Iraqi generals would finish off Mr. Hussein.
The White House assessment of a calm postwar Iraq backfired within three days of Mr. Bush's decision to end Desert Storm. Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq and, later, Kurds in northern Iraq staged violent uprisings. Mr. Bush's decision provided Mr. Hussein with armored forces to quell the Shiite uprising.
While geopolitical stability is among the most profound reasons, some participants report a more trivial aspect to Mr. Bush's decision: The president became hooked on the catchy, headline-grabbing fact that the cease-fire would come exactly 100 hours after the official start of the ground war Feb. 24.
White House Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater denied that 100 hours was a factor in the decision.
But U.S. military commanders recall it differently.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in the Oval Office executing Mr. Bush's order to call General Schwarzkopf and get his recommendation on a cease-fire for 8 a.m. Feb. 28 -- exactly 100 hours. The president and others in the room listened as the connection was made, according to participants.
"We have this great idea," General Powell said, referring to the 100-hour war. "Can you live with it?"
"No problem," General Schwarzkopf said. "No problem."