Roadblocks on the Way to Baghdad

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KAI PFAFFENBACH/REUTERS

A U.S. Army combat engineer tries to get a radio connection at a checkpoint between the cities of Najaf and Karbala

The sandstorm that stopped the U.S. march on Baghdad is ebbing, but Iraqi resistance remains fierce along the approaches to the capital. As both sides maneuvered Wednesday for advantage in what will be the decisive contest of "Operation Iraqi Freedom," U.S. officials warn that the battle for Baghdad may be a clash of brutal intensity, in light of the tenacious Iraqi resistance that has greeted coalition forces in southern and central Iraq.

Even during Tuesday's sandstorm, the U.S. 7th Cavalry fought off an attack by Iraqi guerrilla forces near Najaf, and fierce fighting continued Wednesday. U.S. Marines had earlier fought their way through Nasiriyah and across the Euphrates, but in that city too, fighting continues as Iraqi forces try to reinforce their defenses. Even as they prepare to tackle the Republican Guard units on the outer ring of Baghdad's defenses, coalition forces are also reportedly planning to deploy more of their resources to quell ongoing Iraqi resistance in the south, which has exceeded expectations and raised problems of harassment of supply lines to the Baghdad front.

Earlier reports of a popular uprising in the besieged city of Basra may have been overstated, and British forces are preparing to fight their way into the town in order to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Hundreds of Iraqi armored vehicles left the predominantly Shiite city Wednesday, and came under air attack by coalition aircraft. And in a surprise move whose purpose is not yet clear, the Medina division of Iraq's Republican Guard sent some 1,000 armored vehicles out of Baghdad toward the frontline positions of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division. Although such a deployment would stiffen resistance on the approaches to the capital, U.S. commanders would welcome the opportunity to confront the Guard outside of the capital, where the coalition's overwhelming air superiority would be decisive, rather than in Baghdad's densely populated streets.

Having failed to shock the Iraqi forces into surrender, coalition forces are positioning themselves for a direct assault on Baghdad's defenses, well aware that the duration of the war will now be determined largely by the depth of Iraqi resistance. Even though that resistance has defied the more optimistic expectations that accompanied the start of the war, there's little doubt that the U.S. and its allies will ultimately prevail. But the intensity of that resistance, and its potential to create a drawn out and increasingly messy conflict could complicate the task of stabilizing a post-Saddam Iraq.

The power of the image

The images dominating Arab and international TV coverage on Wednesday were those of more than 14 Iraqi civilians killed in Baghdad by what the BBC describes as two cruise missiles that struck a row of stores. That's precisely the sort of imagery Saddam Hussein wants to create by forcing the coalition into a battle for Baghdad. In their most optimistic scenarios, U.S. officials had imagined their forces being welcomed into Baghdad by cheering crowds, like those that had greeted the liberators of Paris in 1944. But Saddam may be nurturing a World War II image of his own — the brutal battle for Stalingrad that broke the back of Hitler's offensive and decisively turned the tide of the war. (Saddam, being something of a student of Stalin, may also be encouraged by the fact that although Russians loathed their dictator, they fought bravely to defend their country from invasion — even if sometimes it was the guns pointed at their backs, rather than patriotic heroism, that prevented retreat.) Saddam can't seriously hope to repel the invasion, but he may believe that by raising the human cost of capturing the city, and dragging out the battle over weeks, he can generate political pressure on President Bush at home and among Arab allies to force some form of cease-fire.

Neither the prospect of a bloody battle, nor even the possibility that Iraqi forces may use chemical or biological weapons once their lines are breached, are likely to prevent a U.S. victory given the American forces' overwhelming technological advantage. The duration and human cost of the battle, however, may help determine U.S. prospects for winning the peace.

Iraq continues to fight

Whether motivated by fear of their leader, fear of the wrath of his victims, fear of the invaders or simply by patriotic sentiment, many thousands of Iraqis have taken up arms against overwhelming odds despite the coalition's exhaustive efforts to facilitate their surrender. That underscores the depth of the challenge that may lie ahead in pacifying Iraq. Many Iraqi forces are no longer in conventional military formation, but have adopted guerrilla tactics to face a more powerful enemy. Tuesday's sandstorm attack on the 7th Cavalry, for example, was carried out by members of the Fedayeen Saddam, a youth militia run by Uday Hussein, firing AK-47s and RPGs from SUVs and other non-military vehicles. And Saddam is certainly hoping the survival of his regime for the first week of the war will inspire some of the tribal chieftains he has courted and (and armed) over the past decade to join the battle by harassing U.S. forces en route to Baghdad.

Saddam's loyalists are ultimately no match for the forces the U.S. is able to bring to the battlefield. But fierce resistance by dispersed enemy forces, the growing possibility of a bloody and protracted battle for Baghdad, and the mounting hostility towards the U.S. action in the Arab and Muslim world all increase the perils of a post-Saddam nation-building mission. The post-war scenario looms large on the agenda of President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair on Wednesday: The U.S. has planned, until now, to take direct control over a post-war Iraq, but Blair insists that political authority should be immediately transferred to a UN-authorized body. The British leader will try to convince President Bush that notwithstanding the difficulties of working through the UN, a U.S. military administration or a civilian government perceived to be under its tutelage will struggle to win legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis and in the wider region, which could imperil efforts to stabilize Iraq. But the prevailing view among U.S. officials is that the UN should be confined to providing humanitarian aid, while the U.S. takes charge. Britain and the U.S. are firmly united on waging the war to oust Saddam's regime, but calibrating their post-war thinking may yet take some tough talking.