Attacks by Iraqi irregular forces show unpredictable risks of war

Iraqis in civilian dress, others who surrendered catch soldiers unawares

War in Iraq

March 24, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a stark sign of the unpredictable risks they face, U.S.-led forces have suffered casualties in attacks by irregular Iraqi troops, some dressed as civilians, and by others who had signaled surrender, officials say.

From the port town of Umm Qasr to the cities of Basra and An Nasiriyah, coalition soldiers met yesterday with the stiffest resistance of the Iraq war.

Senior military officers said the irregular forces might be composed of units of President Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard or Iraqi guerrillas. The Iraqi forces also might include elements of Fidayin Saddam, a paramilitary group under control of Hussein's son Uday, a defense official said.

"We, of course, will be much more cautious in the way we view the battlefield as a result of some of these incidents," Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition, told reporters yesterday in Qatar. "That will not in any way take away from the way we treat the battlefield."

U.S. military officials said the resistance encountered in southern Iraq would not stall the coalition forces' drive to Baghdad.

Still, as a result of the skirmishes, the port in Umm Qasr has yet to open for the delivery of humanitarian supplies, as U.S. officials had hoped.

U.S. forces are remaining outside An Nasiriyah, where up to nine Marines were killed in a firefight after Iraqis feigned surrender, officials said. Nearby, an Army supply convoy apparently took a wrong turn and was attacked by Iraqi forces. A dozen U.S. soldiers were reported missing; some were taken prisoner.

Speaking on the day that U.S.-led forces suffered their worst casualties to date, Abizaid disputed any notion that the troops' morale would suffer as a result of the graphic images of dead and captured U.S. troops shown on Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television channel.

"We're a pretty tough people," said Abizaid, who nevertheless acknowledged: "It's the toughest day of resistance that we've had thus far."

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy director of operations for U.S. Central Command, said the military believed that the missing U.S. soldiers were "in the custody of the irregular forces that conducted the ambush, and their status is not known."

Asked whether the capture of prisoners would alter U.S. strategy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on CBS' Face the Nation: "Oh, no, it can't. I mean, the plan will go forward. It is proceeding."

As U.S. and British forces move in a two-pronged ground attack toward Baghdad, military officials said that they would be more careful about approaching Iraqis.

Before the war, some defense analysts had predicted that there would be little resistance in cities such as Basra, an area of predominantly Shiite Muslims that has been brutalized by Hussein's regime, and that regular Iraqi troops would quickly surrender.

Several thousand Iraqi army soldiers have surrendered, while others have melted into the civilian population, officials said. At the same time, the fighting so far indicates that the Iraqi dictator seeded the southern area with loyalist forces to keep an eye on the populace.

Those sent in may include members of the Fidayin, armed thugs whose total numbers may be as high as 100,000. Their recruitment is selective, and training is rigorous and professional, Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA analyst, wrote in his recent book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

"It should not have been unexpected," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College who wrote the Army's official history of the Persian Gulf war. After the gulf war, Hussein sent security forces into Basra to quell an uprising.

"They're part of Saddam's regime security and internal police," Scales said of those who have attacked coalition forces. "They believe the best way to do that is to do it in the cities."

To deal with the Iraqi irregulars, Scales said, military planners must be careful to take control of areas where there could be ambushes - such as bridges - while providing supply convoys with more firepower, even artillery and tanks.

But Scales echoed Pentagon officials who said the campaign to remove Hussein is continuing without delay. He pointed to the speed with which the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force are heading toward Baghdad.

"If you want to see how it's going, look at the tip of the spear," Scales said.

Rather than head into the cities and face a well-entrenched foe, U.S. and British troops are bypassing them, cordoning off the cities as they stream toward the capital. Scales, who has written widely on urban warfare, said such cordoning off is preferable to a direct attack or an all-out strike, and will likely continue.

"Wait, what's the hurry?" he said, noting that once Hussein falls, the populace may well turn on the security forces.

Cities can be easily defended and can serve as the "great equalizer" for a defending force against a more powerful attacker, Scales said. But coalition commanders will be careful not to allow their forces to be trapped in a city, he said.

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