Saddam Under Siege

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Bush announces that the U.S. is in early stages of disarming Iraq

In this war, the endgame has become the opening gambit. Instead of pummeling the enemy with an overwhelming display of force and then hunting down their leaders, the U.S. is taking the reverse approach — beginning with a series of bombing raids aimed at taking out the ruling regime. The "decapitation" effort began in the early hours of the morning Baghdad time and was restarted later in the day. The shock and awe campaign, we are told, is still come.

The latest attacks commenced at around 8 p.m. local time when U.S. forces unleashed an intense 10-minute bombardment that hit government ministry buildings. Baghdad's anti-aircraft defenses responded, though with less vigor than they had during the opening hours of the first Gulf War. U.S. ground forces also joined the battle, as a group of light armored vehicles from the Marine First Division engaged Iraqi forces just over the Kuwati border.

The bombing of Baghdad had started at 5:30am local time when as many as two dozen cruise missiles struck at what Pentagon officials described as "leadership targets" — some 90 minutes after the expiration of President Bush's deadline for Saddam to depart Iraq to avoid war. Bush addressed the nation 45 minutes later, announcing that the opening stages of the operation were underway and that U.S. forces were striking "selected targets to undermine Saddam's ability to wage war." He warned Americans to expect a protracted campaign that he said was an essential part of keeping U.S. cities safe from terror attacks, and warned them also to expect Iraqi civilian casualties. U.S. forces would, he said, "make every effort to spare innocent civilians," but that Saddam had deliberately deployed many of his defenses in civilian areas.

As the sun rose over Baghdad, state TV and radio remained on the air in a sign that the regime had not yet suffered the shock-and-awe effect. Later Thursday, Iraqi radio reported that the U.S. cruise missile assault had hit the Hussein family residence, but no one had been killed.

Today's attack has clearly been designed to accomplish the quick elimination of Iraq's centers of power and their channels of command and communication in order to signal to Iraq's armed forces that resistance is futile. On Thursday morning, General Tommy Franks gave Iraq's leaders, and their subordinates, notice that he knows where they live. His airforce will begin eliminating Iraq's air defenses and then pulverizing the buildings that house the regime's political, security and military apparatuses, systematically cutting the tendons and sinews that hold together Saddam's power.

Now that the war has finally begun, those in the U.S. and abroad who have advocated an invasion, and those who have opposed it, suddenly share a common interest in seeing it ended as quickly as possible. The speediest possible elimination of Saddam's regime is driven by concerns ranging from sparing the lives of Americans and Iraqis; maintaining the support of allies, most of whom have lent their support in defiance of domestic public opinion; minimizing the backlash against those in the Arab world that have offered open or discreet support; and minimizing the socio-economic trauma of the war that would complicate efforts to stabilize a post-Saddam Iraq. The plan to drop as many bombs on Iraq in the first 48 hours of the war as were dropped in the entire 1991 Gulf War is designed to smash the regime's power centers and demonstrate to the Iraqi military that the regime they're deployed to defend has already ceased functioning. Washington hopes the "shock and awe" air campaign will prompt the bulk of the Iraqi military to allow the U.S. and its allies to occupy the country without a fight.

And if a speedy conclusion is the U.S. objective, for Saddam the opposite is true. Despite his florid rhetoric, he's well aware that his army cannot stop the Americans and their allies from taking control of most of Iraq. It may be, of course, that Saddam recognizes the inevitability of his doom and plans to go out in a blaze of chemical- and biological- explosions aimed at taking as many of his enemies with him as he can. But his handling of the confrontation until now suggests his goal may instead be to try to slow or stop the U.S. advance by fighting in ways designed to increase political pressure on the U.S. to settle for a partial victory.

Saddam knows the U.S. would prefer to avoid a street-by-street battle for Baghdad, which would almost certainly bring high civilian casualties, and even significant losses on the U.S. side as American technological superiority is partially blunted by the built environment. He may see his best hope lies in forcing the invaders into a fight for the capital. If Saddam's survival concept is based on the political effects of a Baghdad-as-Stalingrad scenario, that may prompt him, at least initially, to keep any chemical and biological munitions tethered and gird for a defense of the capital. But in order to inspire even loyal forces to defend Baghdad and other key cities, Saddam's priority would be to avoid collapse in the face of U.S. bombing. That requires not only demonstrating that he has survived the initial onslaught, but also that at least some of his units are resisting the invasion — a tall order, perhaps, the face of the overwhelming air and ground assault planned by the U.S and its allies, but coalition commanders certainly have reason to hope the regime won't last long enough to force a fight for the capital.