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Iraq war eerily familiar, dangerously new

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 23, 2003

It was the ultimate in reality television. Just after lunch on Friday, as members of Congress were digesting their "freedom fries" and the commander in chief headed to Camp David for the weekend, television viewers finally saw the "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad that U.S. military leaders had delayed for two days. The terrifying explosions of our best and brightest bombs lived up to their billing. It was a scene of shock and awe and fury, and it came to us live from television cameras positioned at a safe distance.

Our military leaders assured us that these "precision" bombs hit only military targets, including Saddam Hussein's presidential palaces. Still, one is left to wonder how there could not be civilian casualties in such a massive display of military power and to imagine the paralyzing fear Iraqi citizens must feel.

When the war began Wednesday night, the television images live from Baghdad looked eerily familiar -- Iraqi anti-aircraft guns lighting up the sky as U.S. bombs found their targets; our new and improved Patriot missiles intercepting the few clumsy Scuds the Iraqis got off; Iraqi soldiers surrendering; a few oil wells in southern Iraq burning; Pentagon briefings complete with cockpit videoes of missiles striking military targets with devastating precision.

We had seen it all before, in the first Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago. But this time something was different. At home, officials heightened the terrorism alert level in anticipation of a possible terrorist attack -- something we didn't have to worry about in the last Gulf War. But 9/11 robbed us of the security we once felt watching high-tech war -- at least on our side -- waged half way around the world. The retired generals of Desert Storm, including "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, have been drafted as military analysts and commentators by the television networks. And unlike the last time, when the press was treated as an enemy, journalists were "embedded" with the troops, providing reports from the battlefield and amazing television images.

Many of us had assumed this war would open with U.S. military commanders making good on their threat of shock and awe. Instead, it began with a mystery -- had the tyrant of Baghdad become the first casualty of the war? Based on new intelligence suggesting the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and his gang, President Bush ordered his military commanders to deliver the first bombs of this war to a residential compound in Baghdad. The tantalizing possibility of avoiding war by cutting off the snake's head with the first blow struck sounded too good to be true. And it may have been. There were reports that Hussein may have been killed or wounded in the attack, but without proof, U.S. officials assumed for their purposes he was still alive, at least for now. That's too bad. If only one of his generals would take him out with a shot to the head ...

U.S. and British forces encountered mostly scattered Iraqi resistance in the first two days of ground action, although two Marines were killed in firefights, the first American combat deaths of the war. At times, there seemed to be more action on the streets of U.S. and Arab cities where antiwar protesters clashed with police. In some Arab capitals after Muslim Friday prayers, thousands of protesters spilled onto the streets to protest the war chanting "death to America" and hurling rocks and bottles. In the Yemeni capital of Sana, an 11-year-old boy and another antiwar protester were shot dead by police.

Meanwhile, the military news from Iraq was encouraging. So far, so good, although the White House reiterated that Americans should not expect a quick victory with few casualties. You have to wonder: Why was there no coordinated Iraqi counterattack as U.S. and British forces rolled closer to Baghdad in the first 72 hours of the war? Why have the Iraqis not displayed civilian casualties of the bombing to television correspondents, as they did before? Is the Iraqi dictator setting up the invaders for a surprise attack with chemical or biological weapons? This tyrant has a rap sheet of crimes against humanity, so why would he not go down throwing everything he has at the invaders?

U.S. officials said it's likely that the bomb that hit Hussein's bunker took a heavy toll on Iraq's military leadership. At a Pentagon briefing on Friday afternoon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said: "The Iraqi regime is starting to lose control of their country. The confusion of Iraqi officials is growing. Their ability to see what is happening on the battlefield ... is slipping away."

As this is written, I have an uneasy feeling the worst is yet to come. We still have to take Baghdad. I worry that Hussein could be planning his own version of shock and awe. After all, isn't this war about destroying his weapons of mass destruction?

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