- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) — For the Pentagon, which had clearly expected the Iraqi army to collapse quickly, Sunday was a day of unpleasant developments.

Before the war, a handful of analysts had voiced concern that failure to deploy sufficient ground combat power could come back to haunt the coalition. In the first Gulf War, the coalition had seven heavy divisions, three medium divisions, two light divisions and two armored cavalry regiments.

In this war it has the equivalent of two heavy divisions and two light divisions. That force has been spread thin, and Sunday the Iraqis began to take advantage of the situation.

First, fighting erupted again in Umm Qas, the Persian Gulf port that had been declared secure twice already. A pocket of around 120 Iraqi soldiers opened fire on U.S. Marines. The fight, carried live by Britain's Sky News, ended after the defenders sustained a 3-hour pounding by Marine tanks.

Then, five captured Americans were displayed on the Al-Jazeera television network. Iraqi forces had ambushed an Army maintenance section, capturing five soldiers. Four wounded soldiers were found later at the ambush site by Marines and taken to a field hospital. The soldiers had apparently driven through the town of An Nasiriyah before realizing that they had strayed into an unsecured area. When they turned back, they were fired on by Iraqi troops.

The Al-Jazeera tape also showed four dead American soldiers. It is possible that some or all of the dead Americans were executed after capture. Two had bullet wounds in the forehead. In addition, Pentagon officials said all were alive when captured.

Meanwhile, fighting continued in Basra, as members of the Iraqi 51st Mechanized Division were holding out, supported by tanks and artillery located in Basra's heavily populated civilian areas. The 51st Mechanized Division's commander had reportedly surrendered his division on Friday. However, coalition forces in and around Basra continued to run into pockets of stiff resistance from small units within the division. This included a small tank battle on the western approaches of the city. The confusion about why the division continued to resist was cleared up on Sunday.

CENTCOM discovered that the "division commander" was actually a mid-level officer claiming to be a general in order to win better treatment from his coalition captors. In short, there was no surrender. British forces have chosen not to engage in a costly and destructive city fight with Basra's defenders. British forces fought with Iraqi troops outside the city while blocking Basra from the south and west. This keeps Iraqis in Basra from venturing out and interfering with the U.S. Marines' advance toward Baghdad.

The 11th Infantry Division had also been expected to surrender, and like the 51st Mechanized, it has not. Fierce fighting continued around An Nasiriyah. After seizing a bridge west of the city, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division had continued along the road to Baghdad. The Marines' Task Force Tarawa arrived Sunday to take control of the area and seize two bridges on the eastern side of An Nasiriyah. The two bridges lay along the same road and are crucial to moving U.S. forces north of the Euphrates. Iraqi regular army units pounded approaching Marines with tank and artillery fire. The Marines responded with tank and artillery fire of their own. They then called in close air support from F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets, AV-8 Harrier jets, A-10 "Warthogs" and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. Fighting subsided after six hours of bombing.

The situation in the south has been complicated by the presence of hundreds of black-uniformed Fedayeen fighters. According to American estimates, these bands have been responsible for the majority of American combat casualties. Hard-core members of the Baath Party in civilian clothes have also taken up arms. These irregular forces have avoided Coalition combat units and focused on more vulnerable supply units.

Talk of "shock and awe," "unprecedented speed" and "a war unlike any that has come before" was absent from the Pentagon Sunday. It was replaced with a much more sober assessment by America's top military official. "Those who think this is going to go on for some time are right," said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

(Thomas Houlahan is the director of the Military Assessment Program of the William R. Nelson Institute at James Madison University.)

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