March to Baghdad hailed as `extraordinary'

But military officials warn tough fighting lies ahead

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The scene of several hundred jubilant Iraqis cheering as a statue of Saddam Hussein was hauled down in Baghdad yesterday surprised Pentagon officials, who expected more resistance from the Iraqi leader's supposedly elite forces.

"The regime's hold on Baghdad was less than we thought," said a Pentagon official. "After a day in Baghdad we're seeing statues topple."

And the fall of the Iraqi capital appears to have vindicated a bold and audacious Pentagon war plan that stretched U.S. forces more than 350 miles, with a smaller number of ground forces than some generals thought were needed and the absence of a planned northern front through Turkey.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the televised celebrations from Baghdad "breathtaking." But he and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that tough fighting lies ahead, from capturing Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad, to ending resistance elsewhere.

Yet others were ready to pronounce the war plan, put together by Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the overall commander, a remarkable success.

"One of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever waged," said former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen in an interview on CBS television, echoing almost word for word a similar comment from Vice President Dick Cheney earlier in the day in New Orleans.

Harlan Ullman, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "I think the military performance has been absolutely brilliant. It's gone far better than people anticipated."

Ullman noted that the achievement was much greater than that during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, when more than 500,000 U.S. forces were assembled in the desert for a 38-day bombing campaign, followed by a four-day ground campaign that liberated Kuwait.

This time, 120,000 U.S. troops surged 350 miles to Baghdad. "It's taken us three weeks," he said.

Myers tried to temper the enthusiasm by noting that there are still more than 10 Iraqi regular army divisions in northern Iraq, along with one brigade of the Republican Guard, which could total upward of 80,000 troops. The four-star officer said Iraqi paramilitary fighters are still operating west of Baghdad and in pockets to the north.

Moreover, U.S. forces came under fire at Baghdad University yesterday, not far from the fallen statue.

"We must not and should not become overconfident," Myers said.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, commander of allied forces in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, agreed: "The job's a little different now, but it's not a Boy Scout mission. This is still a combat operation that's going to require a large, trained military force. A lot of threats still remain."

A Pentagon official noted that the quick dash to the center of Baghdad reflected the technological superiority and overwhelming air power of the American military, and the excellent training and discipline of ground troops. The most feared scenario - the use of chemical and biological weapons by the Iraqis - has not occurred.

The past three weeks have shown the shortcomings of the Iraqi military in terms of tactics and hardware. Iraqi soldiers never tried to maneuver around U.S. troops and fought with outdated Russian equipment.

"Basically, [the Iraqi soldier] just stayed and fought in his hole," one official said. He said there was little communication between senior Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and their troops in the field.

The Iraqis never sent any of their aging fleet of Russian and French warplanes and helicopters into the skies. The aircraft continue to be targeted on the ground by precision U.S. bombs and missiles, which also blasted everything from Republican Guard units and tanks to palaces and radar sites.

The stiffest resistance has come from thousands of fedayeen fighters, the paramilitary troops who wear civilian clothes and pledge their lives to Hussein. Their attacks, particularly in the south, caused U.S. commanders to divert forces racing toward Baghdad last week, though one Pentagon official noted that that was part of the "flexibility" of the U.S. war plan.

One brigade of the 3rd Infantry, about 4,000 troops that account for one-third of the division's combat strength, had to be sidetracked to provide security for supply lines, particularly around Nasiriyah.

As a result, some generals began to offer pessimistic assessments, one of them saying that the enemy, notably the fedayeen, was "a bit different" from what U.S. officers fought in war games. Another problem was the anti-Hussein Shiite majority, which failed to rebel as expected, perhaps cowed by the fedayeen.

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