The resemblance to Vietnam War can't be overlooked

Conflict in Iraq develops not at all as Pentagon led Americans to expect

War In Iraq

March 30, 2003|By Robert Timberg and Tom Bowman | Robert Timberg and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- This war in its early stages recalls the pitched battles and bloody skirmishes of the Vietnam War more than the high-tech wizardry that highlighted the first Persian Gulf war a dozen years ago.

As it has unfolded so far, the war also bears scant resemblance to the conflict Pentagon planners had led the nation to believe it could expect -- one in which a stunning display of air power -- "shock and awe" -- would leave Saddam Hussein and his leadership cadre cowering, if not dead, in subterranean bunkers, his troops surrendering and joyous Iraqis welcoming their liberators.

Instead, there has been fierce resistance, highlighted by an effective if brutal use of paramilitary forces that have bloodied American soldiers and Marines and their British allies.

The big picture still seems to promise victory for the U.S.-led coalition because the vast war machine of the United States assures it control of the air, from which Iraqi forces can slowly but surely be degraded, and because of highly trained and well-equipped ground troops preparing to take them on.

Still, the steadily increasing attacks on the center of Baghdad to eliminate leadership facilities and air defenses, as well as Republican Guard units deployed in civilian neighborhoods, make it more likely over the coming days that an increasing number of civilians will die.

U.S. officials had hoped to keep civilian losses to a minimum, though that might be impossible as American forces approach the fortified capital city.

"We have an obligation to protect the forces we send into combat," said one senior officer. "You're going to have to make some hard decisions. I think you could see more civilian casualties. That's clear as you get closer to Baghdad."

That could be more than a humanitarian problem. Should more civilians die in attacks on the city's air defenses and the Republican Guard, it could harden attitudes within the population, provoking enraged civilians to fight alongside Hussein's soldiers, said Harlan Ullman, a Vietnam veteran and defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There are some real risks there," said Ullman. Moreover, "if there's a blood bath in Baghdad, American opinion's going to be real divided."

Outrunning supplies

U.S. forces that punched out of Kuwait and raced toward Baghdad have stretched their supply lines to 250 miles.

Now, they must take time to consolidate their positions on the outskirts of the city and await such critical items as food, ammunition, water and fuel.

And they must protect their supply lines from attack by Iraqi militia and paramilitary forces by diverting combat forces to secure the lines. Stateside troops, such as the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La., are being rushed to the war zone to help in that effort.

The wild card in the fight so far has been Iraqi paramilitary forces, notably the fedayeen, a brutal though seemingly skilled force of up to 60,000 irregular troops fanatically committed to Hussein. Some of the more aggressive and battle-tested fedayeen units are operating in southern Iraq, where they have spent years putting down anti-Hussein insurrections.

They appear to have taken a page from another battle on this same ground during World War I, when Turkish troops attacked overextended British supply lines stretching from Basra to Al Kut, leading to the defeat of the British force.

Guerrilla tactics

On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the fedayeen "death squads" and denounced their tactics, which he said included cutting out the tongue of an Iraqi civilian and letting him bleed to death in public view.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, briefing reporters in Doha, Qatar, went the defense secretary one better Friday, calling the irregulars "terrorist death squads."

Few doubt their description of the fedayeen, but name-calling and detailing a bill of particulars ignore their impact on the battlefield, which has been considerable.

The fedayeen might, in fact, be a major reason why Iraqi civilians in southern cities have not risen up against Hussein or welcomed U.S. and British troops. The New York Times quoted an American officer as saying that a woman in Basra was hanged after she waved to British troops, an episode Rumsfeld cited Friday.

Two months ago, a Sun reporter traveled to Germany to observe war games for the Iraqi campaign. During interviews with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, ground commander of Army forces in the Persian Gulf, and other senior officers, the words "fedayeen" or "irregulars" were never uttered.

Late last week, though, it was clear these irregular forces were on the general's mind.

"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces," he told reporters for The Times and The Washington Post. "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight."

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