A Longer Journey into the Fight

  • Share
  • Read Later

Rumsfeld urged Congress to approve the $74.7 billion supplemental budget request to cover war costs. On the left is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers

On balance, the first week of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" has gone well for the U.S. and its allies. They've pushed armored infantry units to within striking distance of Baghdad—and done so without suffering overwhelming casualties or experiencing a significant counter-attack. And yet, senior administration and military officials are acknowledging that they underestimated the depth of the Iraqi resistance they would encounter, and have begun talking of a longer war than the public had been led to expect. The proximity of coalition forces to Baghdad does not imply that the war is close to its conclusion, and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld suggested Friday that a period of siege may precede a battle for the capital city.

Saddam's forces have adopted a radically different strategy from what U.S. war planners had apparently anticipated. Rather than ceding the Shiite south and hunkering down for a showdown in Baghdad, Iraqi irregulars continue to put up tough fight across southern and central Iraq. The expected popular uprising and joyous welcome of coalition forces in Basra has not yet materialized, and Iraqi commanders have committed forces to slow the coalition advance in towns along the Euphrates, such as Nasiriyah, Najaf, Kerbala and Samawha, further south than expected. Iraqi political militias organized on guerrilla lines have put up stubborn, often suicidal resistance in towns all along the Euphrates and along U.S. supply lines that stretch 300 miles back to Kuwait. As Lt. Gen. William Wallace told reporters Thursday, "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against."

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

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties

CNN.com: War in Iraq
Administration officials worked hard Friday to tamp down expectations of a speedy victory, saying those has been generated by breathless TV coverage — but public expectation of a quick-and-easy war may have been equally shaped by months of glowing public predictions from by the war's most enthusiastic advocates in Washington; folks who confidently predicted that Saddam's regime would crumble under the weight of its own tyranny.

By midweek, U.S. planners appeared to be moving to expand their range of tactical options. Paratroopers took control of an airfield in Kurdish-held territory north of Baghdad to begin establishing the northern front delayed by Turkey's rebuff of plans for the 4th Infantry Division to march on Baghdad from Turkish soil. The 4th's troops and equipment are currently en route by sea to Kuwait, but their deployment in Iraq — possibly via airfields captured last week in western Iraq — may take another two weeks or more. And the U.S. announced Thursday that a further 100,000 troops would be deployed in the Gulf by the end of April. Such deployments, it should be noted, had always been penciled in as part of the "rolling-start" contingencies in the original war plan. But the announcement appeared to underscore suggestions that the war may yet take a number of weeks, and that the U.S. may be moving expand its troop-strength inside Iraq, pacify the south and degrade Republican Guard units around Baghdad before launching a fight for the capital. Laying siege to the city would almost certainly require a substantial expansion of U.S. troops strength in Iraq, including a substantial deployment on its northern flank.

Baghdad was always going to be the major confrontation of the war, since that's where Saddam Hussein's generals have concentrated their most reliable units. There, in densely populated neighborhoods, Iraqis plan to make a stand on the terrain least favorable to an invading force whose technological advantages would be partially blunted in a street-by-street battle, and whose standing orders require every conceivable precaution to avoid inflicting civilian casualties. The major question facing General Franks now is how long to wait for further ground forces, and for the decimation from a distance of the Republican Guard, before fighting his way into Baghdad. Waiting would leave Saddam's regime intact, which may sustain the resistance of Iraqi irregular forces elsewhere in the country and could also bring increased pressure from Arab countries who have allowed their territory to be used to stage a war that they insisted, above all, be brief and decisive. On the other hand, accelerating the assault on Baghdad risks a bloodier fight that would almost certainly raise the level of civilian casualties as coalition forces target Iraqi forces sheltering in residential neighborhoods. And while the advance of the capital has seen U.S. forces punch through Iraqi lines without depleting their columns by deploying forces to secure and pacify the territory through which they have passed, some analysts have suggested that taking Baghdad street by street from determined defenders may require greater troop strength.

The optimistic scenario for a quick and relatively painless victory over Saddam's forces appears to be receding, as the "shock-and-awe" concept gives way to a more conventional contest of division-strength armored formations. Despite Iraqi resistance, it's a showdown that can only have one outcome — but what may well be decided in the coming days is the time-frame and human cost of regime-change in Iraq.