With coalition troops in capital, war's stage is set for the final act

U.S. forces' adaptability, speed prove crucial in first two weeks of conflict

War in Iraq

April 06, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In just over two weeks, the war in Iraq has come full circle, from a surprise aerial bombardment on Saddam Hussein and his inner circle in a Baghdad suburb to the seizing by U.S. Army troops of the sprawling international airport at the edge of the capital.

The U.S.-led military operation has been characterized by speed and adaptability, though there have been some grim surprises.

Coalition forces, which began limited probes inside Baghdad using troops and armored vehicles early yesterday, have surged nearly 350 miles across Iraq, crushing much of the resistance of irregular fedayeen fighters from Basra to Najaf with relatively light casualties to soldiers and civilians.

Precision airstrikes have all but eliminated the elite Republican Guard divisions as organized fighting units, though some of their soldiers may have fallen back into Baghdad, preparing to battle once more.

Oil fields have been captured, with barely a handful set aflame by Hussein's forces, thus preserving much of the heart of the Iraqi economy. The north and the west of the country are all but under the control of U.S. commandos and paratroopers. Coalition jets rule the skies.

Still, there is a sense of foreboding as U.S. forces sit on the edge of the Iraqi capital, wondering whether Hussein has a form of scorched-earth exit planned, possibly targeting Americans with chemical weapons or creating a humanitarian crisis that could lead to heavy civilian casualties. One American general e-mailed a friend, saying "the heavy lifting" is about to begin.

Hussein "sees himself as Saladin," said a senior Pentagon official, referring to the 12th-century Muslim sultan who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and, like Hussein, was born in Tikrit. "He could set himself up for an operatic endgame. It's just a question of how messy it's going to be."

Military officials said they have no plans to rush into Baghdad but will probably isolate the city, perhaps sending in special operations forces and aircraft to raid or bomb regime targets.

Early yesterday, U.S. ground troops and armor entered Baghdad on what officials described as reconnaissance missions. They were the first of many limited operations to locate and test Iraqi defenses and to destroy Iraqi armor and anti-aircraft guns or artillery, a defense official said.

U.S. commanders are also hoping that some elements of the population, particularly the majority Shiites who despise Hussein, will rise up now that the American forces are testing the city gates.

One Pentagon official thought Saddam Hussein International Airport, would have been more fiercely defended.

"Many of us thought the airport would have been a tough nut - more resistance, booby-trapped," said a Defense Department official.

The fedayeen

During the past two weeks, other expectations also have been shattered. There was initial optimism that the Shiite-dominated south, with its periodic insurrections against Hussein's rule, would quickly fall. But the tenacious resistance from paramilitary units, notably the fedayeen, forced the Pentagon to pull back some U.S. forces heading toward Baghdad to protect overstretched supply lines. These irregular fighters were able to intimidate civilian populations and keep them from rising up against the Iraqi regime.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College who wrote the official Army history of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, noted that in every war there is a "point of crisis," where an enemy adjusts to an attacker's initial thrusts. But Scales said he and others assumed that the Republican Guard would have that role when the U.S. forces closed on Baghdad.

"The thing that's different is that it's not the Republican Guard; the point of crisis was the fedayeen attacking the lines of supply," he said.

Still, American troops were able to quickly adjust to the fedayeen attacks, owing to their ability to adapt to changes on the battlefield, Scales said. Rather than continuing to roll through the towns and cities toward the capital, they were able to quickly fall back and deal with the threat.

"I think that's something we've learned since Vietnam," he said. "What you saw in the last couple of weeks was innovation under fire."

Military planners were also able to adapt quickly to the "lost" northern front in Iraq after Turkey refused to let the tank-heavy 4th Infantry Division roll through its territory and cross into the Kurdish region of Iraq. Instead, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of allied forces, sent hundreds of special operations troops into the rugged northern territory to link up with Kurdish forces.

Then paratroopers from the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade seized airfields in the north in a daring nighttime drop. Military officers say they may soon airlift a small number of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles from Germany into the north.

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