Saddam Hussein's forces have survived the "shock and awe" phase designed to obliterate their will to resist, and they're putting up a fight. That's good news for the Iraqi dictator, and he seized the propaganda moment with a TV broadcast hailing the resistance of his forces and urging them on. Still, the duration of their resistance of his regime may be determined by the outcome of the battle beginning on the southern approaches to Baghdad, as the U.S. Third Infantry Division comes face to face with the Medina Division of Iraq's Republican Guard.
"Shock and awe" had been designed to decapitate the regime and remove its will, and ability to mount a coherent defense. That, coalition commanders had hoped, would spur mass-scale surrender and even the internal collapse of the regime with minimal loss of life. Saddam has planned all along on forcing the coalition to fight a bloody battle for Baghdad, believing that the spectacle of mass civilian deaths and significant military casualties on the coalition side would raise political pressure on President Bush to accept something short of complete victory. As implausible as that scenario may be, it may be shaping the Iraq battle plan. Saddam's priorities in the first days of the U.S.-led attack were to physically survive "decapitation" strikes; maintain the cohesion of his core fighting forces and his ability to command them; and to be able to demonstrate that Iraqi forces were putting up resistance in the face of the coalition advance. So far, it looks like he has.
Sunday and Monday's reports of fierce fighting at Nasiriyah and Najaf, continuing rearguard battles at the southern ports of Umm Qasr and Basra, combined with Saddam's TV appearances and the spectacle of a downed U.S. helicopter and captured POWs, suggest that the regime has avoided the internal collapse desired by U.S. planners. Even though coalition forces have advanced rapidly to within striking distance of the forces deployed to guard Baghdad, success has not come without a fight. Nor have they entirely subdued the territory through which they have passed elements of the Iraqi military and members of the ruling Baath party continued Monday to fight guerrilla-style actions in Umm Qasr, Basra and even Safwan on the Iraq-Kuwait border. Sunday's capture by Iraq of a U.S. maintenance unit outside Nasiriyah is a reminder that these guerrilla-style tactics can harass coalition supply lines as the front moves closer to Baghdad.
Ongoing resistance in the south also raises questions about the place of media in the coalition campaign. Live broadcasts of the swift advances had, in the early days of the campaign, suggested to American audiences that the war would be quick and relatively painless the Dow enjoyed its best week in years on the real-time war coverage. Those images also sent a chilling message to Iraqi officers watching CNN in Baghdad. But new shots of resistance and setbacks may have had the opposite effect. The Dow dropped precipitously as U.S. commanders reminded the public that the road to Baghdad may be long and difficult, while Iraqi officers watching in the capital may have sensed vulnerability among the advancing coalition forces. U.S. military planners began speaking Monday of the possibility of destroying Saddam's broadcast system. But bad news from the battlefield on U.S. and Arab TV may also have a significant effect on the conflict.
The setback posed by the fighting in Basra may be more political than military. U.S. frontline forces had bypassed Basra and swung north for Baghdad, leaving the British to take possession of a city where coalition commanders had hoped they would be welcomed. After all, the predominantly Shiite population of Iraq's third largest city had led the 1991 revolt against Saddam, and a whole Iraqi division deployed to defend it had surrendered. The spectacle of coalition forces being welcomed without a fight would certainly have helped PR efforts to counter mounting Arab and Muslim hostility to the war. Instead, resistance at Basra continues, possibly with the aid of Special Republican Guard Units deployed there against expectations. And the International Committee of the Red Cross reports that the city is running out of fresh drinking water, suggesting that if it is not taken quickly a humanitarian crisis may result.
Still, regardless of difficulties in the south, the basic battle plan remains unchanged: The U.S.-led forces are driving on Baghdad in order to finish this war quickly. But unexpected resistance may mean they will expect some fierce battles along the way. And Saddam, for his part, will focus on trying to slow the coalition advance. "The enemy is working on making [the war] short," he told Iraqi TV on Monday, "and we, with the will of God, are working on making it long and heavy..."
Five days into the war, Saddam's regime has not collapsed, even though the overwhelming superiority of the forces deployed by U.S. military commanders makes its eventual demise inevitable. The crucial test of the duration and cost in human lives of the campaign to oust the regime may come within days, as coalition forces engage with key Republican Guard divisions deployed to make the battle for Baghdad as bloody as possible. Coalition forces will hope to draw them into a fight outside of the city and cut their lines of retreat back into the densely populated capital. But the streets of Baghdad are exactly where Saddam hopes to force the fight, knowing that a hand-to-hand battle for the capital could dramatically raise the human and political cost of a U.S. victory.