21 Mar 2003 | 18:10 GMT
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21 Mar 2003 14:38 GMT Print this Article Email this Article
Battle for Iraq Not the Pushover It Appears

By John Chalmers

AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar (Reuters) - Television images of U.S. tanks tearing across desert sands make the invasion of Iraq look as easy as punching through a soggy paper bag, but the toughest battles of this war are yet to come.

"We have not yet seen a major engagement between large groups of troops," said Tim Ripley of the Defense Studies Center at Britain's Lancaster University. "Until you see that you just can't judge the willingness of the Iraqis to fight."

A top U.S. military commander in the Gulf on Friday predicted a swift victory in the war against Iraq, and a British military spokesman said the allied forces would "hopefully" be in Baghdad in three to four days. But U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar has imposed a news blackout on operations.

By combining public optimism, a dearth of operational detail and carefully controlled news images of rapidly advancing troops, the allies aim to intimidate and befuddle the Iraqis.

But while the world watches American armored columns race deep into the country, other, messier operations are likely to be unfolding out of the public eye.


No one ever predicted much resistance to U.S. and British forces in Iraq's western desert, where Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's troops were sitting ducks in the 1991 Gulf War.

Iraq had made it clear before the shooting started that its elite Republican Guards would be pulled back into towns and cities to draw their opponents into more unpredictable and dangerous urban fighting.

"It doesn't surprise me they are meeting little resistance so far. This is consistent with the Iraqis' assertion they would not fight in the desert but in Baghdad," said Jacques Beltran at the IFRI French Institute for International Relations.

But there have been pockets of resistance already in the south, where Saddam's most ill-prepared troops are ranged with defenses pulverized by months of U.S. and British attacks in the no-fly zone.

While the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division advanced from Kuwait at least 150 km (90 miles) into Iraq on Friday and British commandos took the Faw peninsula on Iraq's southern tip, U.S. Marines met tougher resistance at the port of Umm Qasr.

Reuters correspondent Adrian Croft said the Marine unit to which he is attached was pinned down for two hours just inside Iraq by anti-tank missiles and small arms fire, and only advanced again after calling in British artillery support.

"They have experienced more resistance in the south than they expected," John Rothrock, a retired U.S. airforce colonel who fought in Vietnam, told ARD television's Washington studio. "It has not run as easily as expected."


Rothrock said the allies wanted if possible to avoid the "shock and awe" strategy -- a blitz of some 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles that had been expected at the opening of the campaign but never came -- to avoid extensive civilian casualties, something that would go down badly back home where support for war remains low.

"They will wait through today to tomorrow to see if more Iraqi units surrender," Rothrock said.

Ripley said the narrow-focus cruise missile strikes at dawn Baghdad time on Thursday, aimed at Saddam and his inner circle, showed the allies were looking for a clean victory by decapitating the state and seeing its troops crumble.

"If you kill all Saddam's henchmen then the bulk of the army or the Republican Guard will be leaderless and open to persuasion to give up," he said.

A U.S. defense official said that while the Pentagon was pleased with the rapid ground progress so far, massive air and missile strikes were still in the battle plan.

"I don't think anyone is surprised about the progress down south, but it could change when we get closer to Baghdad," the official told Reuters.

Beltran said there could be a watershed in the conflict in as little as two to three days.

"Either the regime will have fallen by then, or it is still intact and we have to prepare for a battle in Baghdad against Saddam's elite troops that would have much more serious risks."

He pinpointed three areas of risk: a "Stalingrad" siege scenario in Baghdad, an Iraqi resort to biological or chemical weapons, or an escalation elsewhere with fighting either between Turks and Kurds in the north or an Iraqi attack on Israel.

At the allied forces headquarters in Qatar, British Group Captain Al Lockwood talked plenty on Friday but gave little away: "Deception is always part of a military plan," he said.

But the message on a photograph hung up outside the British media office in Qatar said it all: "If you find yourself in a fair fight you didn't plan your mission properly." (Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson in Berlin and Mark John in Paris)

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