Under fire

March 24, 2003|By SUN STAFF

YESTERDAY WAS a tough day, said Lt. Gen. John Abizaid. There are more tough days to come.

For just a moment late last week, it looked as though the war in Iraq might all be over in next to no time. But yesterday found U.S. Marines still trying to secure the city of Umm Qasr 48 hours after it had supposedly fallen, other units meeting fierce resistance on the outskirts of An Nasiriyah, and an ambush in the desert leading to the capture of the first American POWs. The Iraqis are fighting a losing battle, in the conventional sense, but they're not making it easy for the British and American troops on the road to Baghdad.

The initial thrust, as President Bush said yesterday, was designed to secure the oil fields of southern Iraq, and some expected it to go smoothly. With the exception of Kurdistan, this is the part of the country most hostile to Saddam Hussein. And much of the fighting has been against the regular army, recognized as an ineffective military organization, hobbled by politics and riven by an ethnic divide between Shiite enlisted men and Sunni officers.

And yet resistance, apparently spurred by police squads and units of Iraq's Republican Guards, continues.

Ahead lies the heartland in the center of the country, where support for the regime is far stronger and where the Republican Guards have massed. This is a much more cohesive force than the army, led by officers who may believe that, because of their close political association with the current regime, they have nothing to lose by fighting.

They're not likely to do much more than slow the advance on Baghdad, before giving way, but no one -- from President Bush on down -- has any illusions that this is going to be a stroll in the park.

American officers yesterday reported the emergence of irregular Iraqi forces, conducting hit-and-run operations and setting up ambushes, then melting away into the general population. This, unfortunately, could turn out to be a significant development.

On the battlefield, arrayed against regular units, expect the American and British coalition, with its overwhelming firepower, to prevail. But if Iraqi fighters succeed in turning this into a guerrilla war, the U.S. military could be in business there for a long time to come.

A striking photograph yesterday showed a marine kicking open the door to a house outside An Nasiriyah; another showed villagers squatting under the palms while their homes were checked for enemy fighters. Of course a search operation in such a place must have been necessary, but moments like this are disquieting echoes of Vietnam a generation ago, or of Chechnya in our own time. That older man in the second photo, protesting to the young American marine -- is he a friend or foe?

A quick and unambiguous victory is the best way to keep out of the quagmire -- but it's going to be demanding, and it's going to cost lives.

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