||21 Mar 2003 14:38
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.
POCKETS OF RESISTANCE ALREADY
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
"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
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
"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)