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    Hopes for quick march into Baghdad fade

    By TOM DRURY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003

    Nothing changes a war plan like fighting, and rosy U.S. scenarios fell by the wayside as U.S. and British forces moved into the second week of the invasion of Iraq.

    At week's end the U.S. mission was looking less like the lightning change of a feared regime and more like a conventional conflict between mismatched opponents, with both sides vowing to fight as long as it takes.

    Coalition forces won direct engagements when they could find them; Iraq scored successes with guerrilla tactics aimed at stalling the drive to Baghdad, confusing the enemy and harassing vulnerable supply lines.

    Among the immediate losers were high U.S. expectations pushed by optimistic Pentagon planners and tentatively accepted by a public that may remember the relative ease of the Afghanistan and Desert Storm ground actions better than it remembers the weeks of pulverizing air campaign that preceded them.

    The problem may have been broad and conflicting U.S. priorities. Destroying a despotically entrenched government, avoiding civilian casualties and infrastructure losses, occupying ground to preserve oil fields and prevent missile attacks on neighboring countries, winning the trust of an Iraqi people with a reflexive and historically reasonable suspicion of Western powers -- well, it's a lot to do all at once.

    Another obvious point that might be kept in mind is that, unlike the 1991 Gulf War, this time the Iraqis are fighting to keep their own country.

    Ground forces

    The primary coalition target lies to the north, in Baghdad, but problems shoring up the south have caused delays and a collapse of the hope that U.S. forces would be received as liberators. The Red Cross warned of humanitarian crisis in Basra, a city of 1.7-million people near the Kuwait border, which has lacked power and water since March 21.

    British commanders, faced with the choice of seizing the city or containing it, made Basra a military objective at midweek. There were conflicting reports on whether Shiites had risen up against Hussein loyalists in control of the city. Meanwhile, fighting between Iraqi and British forces, the latter backed by Challenger tanks and Harrier and Tornado jets, resulted in the destruction of dozens of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.

    Some of the deadliest ground battles of the war have taken place in Najaf, on the Euphrates River about 100 miles south of Baghdad. Here the U.S. warfighting advantage has been clear but not enough to shut down guerrilla attacks. As many as 1,000 Iraqis died in battles over several days with the 3rd Infantry Division; U.S. forces have reported one soldier killed, a member of a tank crew.

    At the beginning of the week, several fake surrenders were followed by Iraqi ambushes at Nasiriyah, important for its two bridges across the Euphrates and as a gateway to the eastern route to Baghdad. Tony Blair said on Thursday that two British soldiers whose bodies were shown on Al-Jazeera were almost certainly executed.

    Ground attacks on Baghdad were not imminent. The infantry, advance elements of which had moved within 50 miles of the capital, were put on hold to allow the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force time to make similar progress on a parallel track to the east, thus creating a balanced assault.

    Likewise, the development of a northern front will take some time. Several hundred U.S. special forces in the north were augmented Wednesday by 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Division. Considered too light a force to constitute a second front, they could form the vanguard of one.

    The evolving criticism of the U.S. war plan is that the current force of 125,000 soldiers on the ground is not enough to take Baghdad, protect supply lines and suppress paramilitary action. Colin Powell termed this "nonsense" on Wednesday, noting that the coalition had moved 300 miles into Iraq in five days. But some 120,000 additional troops await deployment in Iraq, including the 4th Infantry Division, which could put off an invasion of Baghdad until mid-April.

    The air campaign

    Coalition forces dominate the skies and have flown more than 7,000 bombing and support missions with a focus on government and military sites in Baghdad and attacks on the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

    Aerial photography was said to have revealed the words "human shields" painted on the roofs of several buildings in Baghdad; U.S. officials said the messages would not affect the bombing strategy. On Tuesday the coalition launched a missile attack on Baghdad's main television station, possibly in response to its airing footage of U.S. prisoners of war.

    Three days of high winds and intense sandstorms at times cut the number of missions but clear skies at week's end permitted warplanes a renewed campaign.

    As the week progressed the air assault's attention turned increasingly to Republican Guard forces, such as the Medina Division on the outskirts of Baghdad, that would be the capital's primary defenders in an invasion.

    Patriot missile sites and warplanes have skirmished in friendly fire incidents. An F-16 fired at a missile battery that had evidently attempted to target it. Earlier a Patriot missile shot down a British RAF Tornado, killing its two-man crew.

    Iraq WMD

    Coalition forces had not reported finding any weapons of mass destruction as of Friday despite an intensive search of a weapons depot outside Najaf. But there were signs of their existence and concerns that Iraqi forces are planning to use them.

    When Marines captured a hospital that had been converted to military use in Nasiriyah, they found 3,000 chemical protection suits as well as gas masks and atropine nerve gas antidote. Both British and U.S. troops reported encountering Iraqi forces equipped with gas masks.

    Officials said intelligence suggests that chemical weapons may have been moved south of Baghdad to the Medina Division of the Republican Guard; the fear is that such weapons would be used once a "red line" around Baghdad had been crossed by coalition forces.

    Casualties

    The coalition said that as of Thursday 24 American and 22 British soldiers had been killed. The Iraqi health minister said 350 civilians had been killed and more than 3,600 wounded since the beginning of the war. Iraq's military casualties are not known but according to battlefield reports could exceed 1,000.

    Iraq said at midweek that a cruise missile had struck a crowded neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 14 and injuring dozens. U.S. defense officials questioned the charge but said it's possible that the area was hit by a missile aimed at antiaircraft batteries in the city.

    The United States and Britain say they have taken more than 4,000 prisoners of war. U.S. commanders said that some Iraqi soldiers who had been allowed to return to their homes in Basra were being forced back into service by paramilitary units loyal to Hussein. Iraqi defenders of Basra were also reported to be using the local population as human shields.

    -- Tom Drury Perspective editor of the Times.

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