- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, March 24 (UPI) — U.S. combat helicopters softening up Iraqi Republican Guard positions at Karbala barely 50 miles from Baghdad ran into a storm of anti-aircraft fire that downed at least one Apache Monday as Marines fought to secure the roads north to Baghdad from the communications of hub of An Nasiriyah.

Meanwhile, coalition commanders rushed British troops from Basra back to the Rumailah oilfields near the Kuwaiti border, where Iraqi guerrilla forces had infiltrated to lay ambushes and challenge the coalition for control of the roads north.

There were two kinds of war under way Monday as the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division closed on Baghdad from the southwest, probing forward from the Euphrates crossing at An Najaf toward Karbala.

The first was the classic battle of organized armies, where three Republican Guard armored divisions were trying to hold the approaches to Baghdad from the twin-pronged U.S. advances up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In this kind of war, coalition air power and technological superiority put the Iraqis at a severe disadvantage.

But the second kind of war, the guerrilla actions being fought by Iraqi militia and irregular forces stiffened by Iraqi special forces, is proving a real challenge for the British and American troops who are constantly being distracted by the need to re-secure their communications and supply routes to the rear.

If the potent armored columns of U.S. tanks and combat helicopters have a weakness, it is their constant reliance on endless supplies of fuel, water and ammunition from the giant logistics dumps in Kuwait, up to 300 miles to their rear.

It is these supply lines that the Iraqis are contesting. An ambush Sunday night that killed two British soldiers forced the British to switch armored forces from the outskirts of Basra to clear the Rumailah oilfields all over again.

The U.S. prisoners of war paraded on Iraqi TV Sunday were from a logistics unit that ran into an ambush.

The war was not supposed to go like this. While the hard armored battles with the Republican Guard outside Baghdad were expected, the guerrilla war has come as an unpleasant surprise, and strains a coalition force that is considerably smaller than the 600,000-strong allied armies of the first Gulf War.

The readiness of the Iraqi regular army and militia — not just the Republican Guard — to fight for their homeland has been another surprise. The Iraqi leadership seems to have planned this resistance. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's son Qusay organized the fedayeen, the forces dressed in civilian clothes and using pick-up trucks to mount the resistance outside the port of Umm Qasr and the guerrilla strikes in the rear of the Basra and An Nasiriyah fronts.

"Every time the invader has left the desert and come into our homes, they have met resistance," Saddam boasted in his TV address Monday. For once, this was more than vainglorious propaganda.

The built-up areas of Basra, An Nasiriyah and An Najaf — all occupied mainly by Shiite Arabs with little reason to defend the Sunni-dominated Baghdad regime — have become real problems for the advancing coalition forces.

The difficulty for the U.S. and British troops is their reluctance to use their heavy firepower and air strikes against civilian buildings and areas. The reason for this is plain; they wanted to appear to the Iraqi people in general, and to the Shia of southern Iraq in particular, as liberators, not as destroyers of their homes. The strategy of Qusay's fedayeen guerrillas has been to provoke just such a use of fire power in civilian areas, with worrying political consequences.

The coalition commanders have an ace card up their sleeve, the airborne troops of the 101st Division, highly mobile elite forces with strong helicopter support, largely uncommitted and available for deep strikes to the flanks and rear of the Iraqi defenders around Baghdad.

The buildup of U.S. supplies and Special Forces, flying into makeshift airfields in the Kurdish-held districts of Northern Iraq, also holds open the prospect of a northern front to threaten the Iraqi rear.

But this threat is far, far less potent than it would have been had the Turkish government opened its territory to permit the planned drive of the potent U.S. 4th Infantry Division.

The military outcome is not in doubt. Heavy U.S. reinforcements are on the way, including the 4th Infantry Division now passing through the Suez Canal, and the 1st Armored and 1st Cavalry divisions, two armored units that might usefully have been deployed from the beginning.

If the military outcome is certain, the political outcome is starting to look problematic as the Iraqi resistance mounts, and Saddam's appeal to Arab and Islamic support in the world outside Iraq puts intense pressure on other Arab regimes.

It also suggests that the eventual battle for Baghdad may prove very tough and destructive indeed, just as the coalition forces start trying to build a post-Saddam administration for the country.




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