Five Questions on the Road to Baghdad

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Smoke covers the presidential palace compound in Baghdad

How's the war going? According to Donald Rumsfeld, pretty good indeed. Day Three of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was all about control. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Saddam Hussein may be losing control of his country; at the same time, U.S. forces took control of some important oilfields in southern Iraq. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines caused a minor stir when they raised the U.S. flag over the Iraqi port Umm Qasr — while the U.S. is, in fact, taking control of Iraq, it doesn't want to be seen as, um, occupying Iraq. Just liberating it. So the flag came back down.

The battle has been completely joined. Baghdad was pulverized by U.S. Friday, the first installment of the promised "shock-and-awe" air campaign that U.S. commanders had held off on for the past 48 hours, and ground troops advanced deep into Iraq. At the same time, U.S. and British ground forces moved into southern and central Iraq, having seized Iraq's only deep-water port at Umm Qasr and begun fighting for control of Basra, the capital of Shiite southern Iraq. Air strikes have also blasted targets in the key northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, where unconfirmed reports also suggest U.S. airborne troops may have seized control of important oilfields. Now, as we move into the next phases of the war, here are five key questions to ask.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

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How long can Saddam hold out?

Although coalition forces encountered some significant resistance at Umm Qasr and elsewhere in the south, the military units on which Saddam is depending to stand and fight have been deployed closer to Baghdad. The crucial indicator of how long and bloody this war will be is likely to come over the next week as U.S. and British forces come face to face with Republican Guard units deployed along the approaches to the capital. Saddam and his generals knew they could not stop the U.S. and British forces at Iraq's borders; their game plan has been to force a bloody battle for the capital, in the hope that this would raise political pressure on Washington to halt its offensive. But, if anything, that strategy increases the incentive for U.S. commanders to accelerate their campaign.

Destroying Saddam's regime quickly and with minimal civilian casualties remains the fundamental objective of the war. Bombing Baghdad certainly raises the political stakes, because it substantially increases the risk of civilian casualties in the densely populated city. Precision-guided munitions help alleviate the danger, but can't entirely eliminate it. And precision bombing requires precision intelligence — the U.S. bomb that destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1998 was guided by satellite with deadly accuracy; the problem lay in the intelligence that had wrongly identified the building. The inability of U.S. and British intelligence tips to guide UN weapons inspectors to any "smoking guns" over the past three months is a reminder that there's much on the ground in Iraq that remains unknown to coalition forces.

The latest round of bombing is likely to inflame the unprecedented hostility the war has ignited among even relatively moderate quarters in the Arab world. Fierce clashes on the streets of Egypt and Yemen in the past two days have served as a reminder of the strains the war has put on Arab governments allied with Washington. Still, the danger of civilian casualties increases exponentially if coalition armies are forced to wrest control of Baghdad from determined defenders, and U.S. commanders are hoping that the combination of heavy air bombardment of the regime's power centers and the rapid drive by coalition forces towards Baghdad will prompt an internal collapse of Saddam's regime as even loyal troops read the writing on the wall.

A Battle For Baghdad?

In what may be a dress rehearsal of any battle for Baghdad, British forces are advancing quickly on Basra. But their commanders have indicated that they plan to avoid fighting street by street for control of this city, planning to enter only once they'll be welcomed in. That possibility is not as outlandish as it may sound — Basra was the epicenter of the bloody Shiite revolt against Saddam in 1991, and coalition commanders have reason to suspect that Saddam's control of the city may once again be broken by an internal uprising. Images of coalition forces being welcomed by cheering crowds would certainly help the Bush administration silence critics of the war, but entering the city may pose its own challenge: The U.S. and Britain want to avoid a reprise of the bloody retribution against government officials that followed the 1991 uprising, which would be unlikely to help coalition efforts to persuade most of Saddam's generals and officials to surrender. The priority appears to be the drive on Baghdad to decapitate the regime — if not by a precision-targeted air strike then by a the rapid deployment of overwhelming force. That will be helped by capturing Basra, which guards a route to the capital along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.

A secondary question that arises in the largely Shiite region is how the locals will respond to the invading forces. They've shown themselves willing to fight Saddam, but the failure of the U.S. and its allies to support their 1991 rebellion, which left them at the mercy of Saddam's army, generated widespread bitterness towards the U.S. And the most powerful political-military force in the region appears to be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Iran and has a close relationship with the leadership in Tehran. Iran certainly has a strong interest in influencing the outcome of the U.S. war in Iraq, and events in southern Iraq in the weeks ahead may yield some clues as to Tehran's intentions.

What About Kirkuk?

British reports suggest U.S. airborne troops have seized control of some of Iraq's most important oil fields near the northern city of Kirkuk. But the fate of the city remains one of the most important questions shaping the outcome of the war — and the peace. The U.S. has been advised to take control of the city as soon as possible because Kirkuk may be the focal point of post-war conflict between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Thousands of Kurdish fighters whose families were driven out of the city by Saddam's ethnic cleansing campaign over the past decade have vowed to return and claim their property. But Turkey sees Kurdish control of Kirkuk as unacceptable, both because it would strengthen Kurdish autonomy in a new Iraq and because they see the city's rightful owners as the Turkmen minority, which has a long history of conflict with the Kurds.

Even after Turkey's parliament agreed to allow the U.S. the right to use Turkish airspace, negotiations at the executive level broke down over disagreements between Washington and Ankara over Turkey's role in northern Iraq, suggesting that the potential for violent clashes between Turkish and Kurdish forces remains high. And that creates an incentive for the U.S. to take control of the most prized piece of real estate in that conflict. That would have been a lot easier, of course, if Turkey had allowed the U.S. to launch a ground invasion from its territory.

Can We Find Saddam's Banned Weapons?

The fact that U.S. ground troops are obliged to don gas masks every time Iraq fires shells or missiles in their direction underscores the tactical importance of finding and eliminating any chemical and biological weapons. The U.S. has little intelligence on where any such stocks may be located; dedicated teams will be looking to gather this intelligence in the field as the battle unfolds and the regime begins to collapse. Even greater than the tactical need to eliminate such weapons is the political need to show they exist. President Bush and Tony Blair have insisted that this war is an act of preemptive self-defense against Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, while most of the UN Security Council remains unconvinced. Even as the first air strikes began, chief UN weapons inspector Dr. Hans Blix publicly chided U.S. "impatience" to go to war, and questioned the veracity of U.S. and British claims on Iraq's weapons programs. The geopolitics of the post-Saddam era will be made considerably easier for Bush and Blair if they can get some egg on Blix's face.

Back to the UN?

The U.S. and Britain failed to win UN endorsement for the war, and signs are that they may face a struggle to win endorsement for their version of the peace. Britain has taken the lead in efforts to ensure that whatever political order is established in Baghdad after the war carries UN authorization. Already, the coalition has moved to expand funds available to the UN oil-for-food program, on the basis that Iraqi oil revenues controlled by the UN would be used to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of Iraqis as a result of the war. And Blair has sought European Union backing for a Security Council resolution to authorize a new civil administration in Iraq. But France and others who have opposed the war have expressed opposition to the idea of retrospectively sanctioning regime change — UN Secretary General Kofi Annan even questioned the legality of the war — and France has given notice it will resist any move to transfer de facto political authority in Baghdad to Britain and the U.S.