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Time.com

Iraq: Inside the strategy

By Johanna McGeary


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War designed to fit a theory, as the Bush administration learned last week, can falter when key assumptions don't pan out.

After months of selling its case, the Administration gave the impression it had devised a Teflon war: quick, easy, relatively bloodless. War boosters predicted that Iraq's leadership would snap, Iraqi forces would surrender, Iraqi citizens would welcome American soldiers with open arms.

Now that the first week's fighting has sometimes failed to match those expectations, some experts are asserting that the U.S. was not prepared for some of the possible difficulties.

THERE WOULD BE LITTLE RESISTANCE

"The enemy we're fighting," said Army Lieut. General William Wallace last week, "is different from the one we'd war-gamed against." At least the commander of V Corps and the highest-ranking officer at the front was honest in assessing one of the most unsettling battlefield surprises: Iraqis are resisting vigorously.

And they're doing so in ways that seem to have caught Washington off guard--that is, by embedding paramilitary forces behind the front lines to engage in guerrilla tactics that can't win the war but can dangerously drag it out.

If the Pentagon's plan was to fight from the "inside out"--a lightning drive on Baghdad to decapitate the regime and then liberate the rest of the country--Saddam has counterattacked from the outside in. He let allied forces plunge deep inside Iraq, leaving their rear and flanks ill protected so that his forces could harass and ambush them.

His aim was shrewd and twofold: to pester and wear down allied forces and lure the U.S. into inflicting politically costly civilian casualties. That's not how the theologians predicted the campaign would unfold.

The theory was that the initial display of military might by U.S. warplanes and ground troops would "shock and awe" the Iraqi military and high-ranking officials into the conviction that resistance was futile. The despot's regime, Administration officials insisted, was too "brittle" to survive such an onslaught. Iraqi troops would defect en masse, they suggested. Intelligence and military officers had selected likely turncoats among the military's highest echelons.

Just two days before the opening salvo, Richard Perle, a leading war booster on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, predicted, "Even those closest around the [Iraqi] President will understand they have no chance in the face of what's coming after them." But "shock and awe" has failed to deliver a knockout blow thus far. Punishing strikes damaged trappings of Saddam's power but failed to crack the regime. The thunderous barrage didn't break ordinary Iraqis either.

Saddam's ghostly appearances on national television convinced his citizens--if not Washington--that he remained in control. Iraqis have endured bombing intermittently for more than 12 years and have learned resilience. Saddam owns a poor record for generalship, and U.S. officials expected him to lop off the south as lost in the war's first hours.

Instead Iraq's newly titled Staff Field Marshal Saddam played to his limited strengths by deploying highly motivated loyalist paramilitaries to the towns and cities where they could help him keep his grip on power. Saddam carefully chose forces that could handle double duty, tying down coalition troops with a stubborn stream of skirmishes while compelling local populations to stay loyal.

It should have been no surprise that a regime noted for its cruelty would toss out the gentleman's guide to war by fielding irregulars like the Fedayeen Saddam. These estimated 20,000 young "men of sacrifice," commanded by the ruler's notorious older son Uday, are the regime's most politically reliable force, known for their readiness to carry out its dirty work.

Beginning in 1995, Uday recruited local toughs from Sunni regions devoted to Baath rule to form a family security force under his personal control. Originally in charge of smuggling, the Fedayeen were schooled to become a ruthless instrument for quelling dissent. Skilled in torture and assassination and willing to die for Saddam, the Fedayeen are perfectly suited to their dual mission behind enemy lines. They have always operated outside the law, so they don't flinch at adopting guerrilla ruses damned by the Geneva Convention.

They're willing to turn their AK-47s on Iraqis to keep them from surrendering. British officers say the Fedayeen are forcing the unwilling remnants of Iraq's 51st Infantry Division to continue the fight at Basra. While the Fedayeen are the most aggressive of Iraq's popular militias, an assortment of other irregulars has been dragged into the fray.

Some members of the al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Army, who show off at parades and propaganda events but lack fighting credentials, have been given rifles and mustered into action. And in many cities and towns, local Baath Party faithful, who have everything to lose if the regime collapses, have joined the fight. Pentagon officials told reporters last week that "I think we underestimated" the strength and capability of Iraq's paramilitaries.

Last fall a Defense official dismissed them as insignificant, predicting, "the Fedayeen will run with their tails between their legs." If war planners worried about the paramilitaries at all, they assumed the trouble might come in Baghdad. The CIA says it distributed a classified report in early February to policymakers warning that the Fedayeen could be expected to employ guerrilla tactics against U.S. rear units.

These Washington intelligence analysts now complain that their views were softened as the report moved up the chain of command. The intelligence was there, an official told TIME, but "I have no idea how much attention they paid to it."

Starting in February, Saddam himself telegraphed his intention to use unorthodox forces to hinder a U.S. invasion in televised appearances certainly monitored by U.S analysts. Maybe they dismissed his declarations as bombast. Last week he even listed Baath militia, tribal warriors and the Fedayeen by name when explaining how he would triumph, and then publicly commended them: "Under various names and descriptions, the Iraqi mujahedin are inflicting serious losses on the enemy."

So far those paramilitary attacks are what an Administration official shrugged off as a "major annoyance." Most Bush aides believe the resistance will melt away once Saddam is gone. Yet allied troops have had to adjust tactics to deal with snipers and surprise attacks as well as adopt a wary attitude when confronting civilians.

Although most of the Iraqis' assaults are both suicidal and futile, they have stirred up an image of Iraqi resistance wholly at odds with the quick capitulation the U.S. had hoped for. Even when Saddam's power is broken, some of the diehards could go underground to continue the struggle against a U.S.-occupied Iraq.

THERE WOULD BE DANCING IN THE STREETS

"I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators," said Vice President Dick Cheney on March 16--and he was hardly the only Administration warrior to believe it.

In the White House vision, freed Iraqis would dance with joy from the very first days of the war. Pictures of happy, liberated Iraqis were crucial to the plan, since the Bush team counted on those images to help persuade Saddam's army to surrender, inspire civilians across the country to rise against the regime and defuse global opposition to the U.S. campaign. Iraqis may yet exhibit gratitude, but the "rose petal and rice" scenario hasn't materialized yet.

This doesn't hurt too much on the battlefield, but it is a real setback in the political arena. What happened? "They're not going to do anything until Saddam's gone," said a disappointed senior Pentagon official. The Administration blames it all on the dying regime's brutality.

With Saddam's paramilitaries at work in the south, even the Shi'ite population, which has never been granted much political power by the ruling Sunni elite, has been cowed. In the aftermath of the previous Gulf War, the first President Bush encouraged the Shi'ites to revolt, then stood on the sidelines when Saddam viciously crushed them. They haven't forgotten.

The U.S. war commander, Army General Tommy Franks, said "fear tactics are still being applied" to prevent the Shi'ites from welcoming liberation. Long before this conflict, Saddam infested every village and city in the south with enforcers and informers under orders to snuff out the first hint of rebellion. Saddam has also deftly played to his countrymen's ancient and strong feelings of Iraqi nationalism, Arab pride and Islamic fervor.

He has charged that the U.S. is waging a colonial war of aggression aimed at dishonoring Islam and weakening Iraq to benefit Israel and acquire oil. Bush war planners, says Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, a Cairo political scientist, didn't factor in "patriotism, people simply defending their country." Even those who would delight in Saddam's departure do not necessarily want their future dictated by foreign invaders. "I think there are certainly some out there fighting to defend their homeland," says a senior U.S. military official in the war zone. "They might not give a s____ about Saddam. They just know they're being invaded."

The Administration has operated by the simple equation that Iraqis who loathe Saddam would welcome America as liberator. Yet many Iraqis don't much like the U.S. They blame America for a harsh decade of suffering under economic sanctions that destroyed their livelihoods but not Saddam's power. Like most other Arabs, they resent American support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

In the end, many will judge the invaders by the conduct of the war: the growing prospect of a protracted conflict that kills many innocent civilians could forestall a successful postwar era.

THE WAR PLAN COVERED ALL CONTINGENCIES

"It's a plan that's on track," Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, kept saying last week, and in the broadest sense, he is probably right. But as 19th century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke famously said, "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy." Shifting circumstances on the ground last week posed a test for the Administration's skill at adaptation.

Although the Bush Administration seemed unwilling to recognize it, there's actually nothing wrong in trumpeting U.S. flexibility in the face of new facts on the ground. One dilemma Bush's team faced was too delicate for public discussion. The Administration has been fixated on limiting the scope of the war to avoid Iraqi casualties and the political damage they would do the U.S.

"We made certain choices about how we fight this war," said a senior official last week, "to affect civilian life as little as possible." Precision bombing would hit only targets that would not involve heavy collateral damage.

The paramilitaries have held on to southern cities and towns by taking full advantage of American reluctance to cause civilian casualties: they fire from machine-gun-toting pickup trucks parked at mosques and hide out in hospitals. Unusually strict rules of engagement prevent allied soldiers from shooting first at anyone who appears unarmed, which gives Fedayeen in street clothes a better opportunity to hit and run.

The result is greater jeopardy for allied soldiers. But Washington knows it would pay a significant political price if it ordered its forces to abandon those restraints. The question openly debated last week was whether Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bet right when he decided on the scope of the invading force. Deployment is now at 250,000, but only the Army's 3rd Infantry Division is a heavy fighting force, and just 150,000 of the total are ground-combat troops.

Chairman Myers insisted last week that the U.S. had deployed "just the right forces." Certainly those forces had a lot to do, from taking Baghdad to searching for Saddam's bio-chem weapons to delivering water and food to civilians. An additional 2,000 soldiers reach the war theater each day, and the total will rise to 340,000 in the weeks ahead.

Rumsfeld says his plan called for just such a "rolling start." But these reinforcements were originally intended for occupation duty; now they will see combat. In the face of Iraq's gritty resistance, squads of armchair generals have complained that the deployment is too small and too light. At the moment, Franks' troops do not satisfy the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force.

Standard Army practice prescribes two heavy divisions for a campaign of this magnitude. Bush the elder fielded 540,000 U.S. troops to kick Saddam out of the desert wastes of Kuwait. For the more ambitious task of driving Saddam from power, Rumsfeld pushed Franks to fight with half that number, fewer troops and less armor than the general originally wanted.

But the current battle plan is all part of the Defense Secretary's conviction that a more potent, smaller, higher-tech force can win in new ways. Army officers have complained throughout the planning process that Rumsfeld was relying too much on air power and wasn't calling for enough boots on the ground.

"The issue isn't, was there enough," says an Army general. "The issue is, was there more than enough." Second-guessing has begun on the wisdom of launching U.S. troops into battle without pounding the enemy silly first. In the 1991 war, bombers pummeled Iraq for 39 days before the tanks rolled in, and almost 100,000 dazed Iraqis rushed to surrender.

Franks pressed for a 14-day bombing campaign this time, but Rumsfeld rejected it as old think. The accelerated push has subjected a nearly 300-mile supply line snaking back to Kuwait to repeated nighttime ambushes. Units have had to be siphoned off to protect it.

Tanks have had to be turned on rear-guard guerrillas rather than on the Republican Guards dug in ahead. Critics say Franks needs an additional heavy Army division. The Administration sent Franks into combat without the 4th Infantry and other reinforcements that he expected to have. Those heavyweight 62,000 troops were supposed to swoop down on Baghdad from bases in Turkey to open a second front.

The Administration assumed a multibillion-dollar aid gift plus permission to put Turkish troops across the Iraq border into Kurdish territory would persuade its NATO ally to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish territory. What the Administration didn't seem to factor in was the strong opposition of Turkey's mainly Muslim population and an election bringing Islamic leaders to power.

But when the parliament in Ankara refused at the 11th hour, Bush made the decision to launch the war anyway. The Pentagon officially discounted the need for an immediate northern front. They were more wary about giving Saddam extra time to ready his defenses. If U.S. forces run into trouble as they close in on Baghdad, there are scant units in reserve to rescue them.

"We're basically betting that won't happen, and it probably won't," an Army officer says. "But if it did, we'd be in trouble." The 4th Infantry and its tanks are dribbling into Kuwait and should be ready to roll by early April. The Bush war plan is predicated on momentum; slowing down wasn't part of the program. But the pause imposed by last week's reversals may prove a godsend, allowing the allies to muster extra firepower and more robust supply lines and giving soldiers a chance for a little shut-eye.

For the Bush Administration, some of the unexpected turns of Gulf War II reflect a perhaps too rigid adherence to ideology at the expense of on-the-ground practicality. But whatever the weaknesses in some of the Administration's early assumptions, they probably won't alter the outcome of the conflict--though they may prolong it.

There have been many signal successes on the ground: after all, U.S. forces have moved to within 50 miles of Baghdad in a week, and American forces have defeated the Iraqis in every head-to-head encounter. Despite individual setbacks last week, U.S. fortunes can switch course at any moment.

But in this media age, expectations are almost as much a part of any war as the battlefield. As even military strategists note, flexibility and muscle, not theories, lead to victory. That's something the military planners of Gulf War II are now taking into account.

--Reported by John F. Dickerson, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington, Sally B. Donnelly/Doha, Meenakshi Ganguly/Bahrain, Scott MacLeod/Cairo and Terry McCarthy/Kuwait City



Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.

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