Fight looks tougher in Basra, Umm Qasr

Resistance appears to exceed expectations

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUWAIT CITY - U.S. officials from President Bush on down have cautioned that war with Iraq could be difficult, and there was growing evidence yesterday that American and British troops, at least in some pockets of fighting, are facing more resistance than military planners expected.

The glimpses of war as seen on television and in newspaper stories carrying Iraq datelines offer a view of the war mostly in narrow slices - what a camera on a hotel roof can capture of the bombing of Baghdad, what reporters traveling with troops can see in an extremely limited field of view.

By most accounts, from the military and otherwise, the war is going well, with key Iraqi military installations destroyed and at least 1,200 troops now prisoners of war after their surrender.

But there has been little acknowledgment that not all is going as expected, that while firefights are an inevitable part of war, they are, in some cases, taking longer, and have been more intense, than has been portrayed by military officials.

The difficulty U.S. and British troops have had in subduing two cities in southern Iraq has been real, and the battles involving them - Umm Qasr and Basra - suggest that an even tougher time may come in securing Baghdad.

Yesterday, after the U.S. military declared it had captured the port city of Umm Qasr, virtually all of the 1,445 reporters accredited here wanted to go there. A checkpoint near the Kuwait-Iraq border, guarded by U.S., British, Australian and Kuwaiti troops, briefly opened but then quickly closed.

"Orders just came in, sir," said a young U.S. soldier clutching a rifle. "You have to turn around."

"If you want to get killed, I would let you, but that is not my job," said an exasperated Col. Nader Saben, the Kuwaiti military official in charge of issuing credentials to journalists wanting to cross the border. "The Americans are driving us crazy with this `capture' talk. Umm Qasr is still dangerous."

In fact, the swift closure of the checkpoint, about 17 miles from the Iraq border, came after 24 journalists allowed into Umm Qasr were fired on. Three, according to the Kuwaiti colonel, were wounded.

On television, though, even as the checkpoint was closed because of danger, live broadcasts describing Umm Qasr's liberation were aired, including scenes of townspeople joyously thanking the soldiers who freed them from the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Most of those reports came from journalists traveling with the military who were ushered to a section of the city where fighting had ceased after Iraqi soldiers surrendered. Other pictures of grinning Iraqis came from the few journalists who trickled past the checkpoint.

Elsewhere in the city, though, urban fighting was still being waged last night, which accounted for the closing of the border.

"There are small groups of determined men with rifles and [rocket launchers], some in civilian uniforms, who are still fighting," said Col. Christopher Vernon of the British army, who added that he considered the area "secure but with still pockets of resistance."

At a news briefing yesterday, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the man running the war, was asked about Umm Qasr and whether reports about its status had been misleading.

"There is an impression here in the region that you are having more trouble than you are willing to admit, that you're meeting stiffer resistance than you're willing to meet," a reporter said. "One case being brought to mind is Umm Qasr, if you can talk about that."

Franks did not contest the assessment, replying, "I'll simply say that we have been and will remain deadly serious about our business. And all in this room should remain convinced that what we say from this podium, myself or my staff, or what we say from the various press centers associated with this coalition will be absolute truth as we know it."

Umm Qasr, Iraq's only deep-water port, has a population a fraction of that of Baghdad's. It is in the southern no-fly zone of Iraq, and there were reports that Iraqi soldiers had moved northward weeks ago to help strengthen Baghdad's defense. It is populated primarily by Shiite Muslims assumed to have little affection for the Iraqi regime.

In a sign that officials had expected less of a fight, reporters in Kuwait were told last week that small numbers of them would likely be shuttled in as early as this weekend and that a border crossing into southern Iraq would likely be opened to all reporters in a few days.

Basra, 90 kilometers to the north of Umm Qasr and a much bigger prize for military officials, could be secured by this weekend, the reporters were told, though they were cautioned that the timing of war is always uncertain.

"Just because we have secured a military objective doesn't mean we have cleared up every bad person," Col. Guy Shields told reporters here yesterday, adding that a border crossing would be open when southern Iraq is deemed safe.

Indications are, though, that military officials are adapting to more than scattered gunmen firing their last bullets. Military officials acknowledged yesterday that navy aircraft in the region assigned to strike targets in Baghdad and elsewhere have been shifted to provide close-air support for U.S. forces in southern Iraq.

Over the past two days, intense battles have been waged around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. U.S. and British troops facing artillery and machine-gun fire have paused outside the city, trying to persuade Iraqi soldiers to give up in hopes of avoiding an urban battle.

"Our intent is not to move through and create military confrontations in that city," Franks told reporters in Qatar. "Rather, we expect that we'll work with Basra and the citizens in Basra the same way, I believe, [that] has been widely reported in Umm Qasr. What we have seen up to this point is that the Iraqis are welcoming the forces when they come in."

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