- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, March 28 (UPI) — The battle of the Sunni triangle has begun, and coalition commanders now hope it will last for some time before they close in on the city of Baghdad. Bounded by the cities of Baghdad, Najaf and Kut, this triangle of some 1,200 square miles is the heartland of the Sunni Muslims and the cradle of the ancient Babylonian civilization.

It is now to become a killing ground. As the skies clear and the fierce sun of spring burns down, the U.S. combat helicopters and air power have been unleashed upon the Republican Guard and Iraqi army forces who are being constantly reinforced to hold this bleak and flat terrain.

In the view of coalition commanders in Camp Doha, Kuwait, this is a gift. With steady pressure from their own ground troops, they can fix the Iraqi forces in place where they can be killed from the air. And the more Saddam's loyalists are ground down in this happy hunting ground for U.S. air power, the fewer they will meet in the streets of Baghdad.

And in the meantime, as they await the arrival of reinforcements, the U.S. troops can scour the remaining guerilla threats to their supply lines, 300 miles back to Kuwait, and start the "hearts and minds" campaign with humanitarian supplies among the Shiite Muslims of southern Iraq.

Now they have heard President Bush declare his readiness for a long war — "however long it takes," as he said at Thursday's news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair — the coalition commanders feel under no pressure to mount a swift attack on the Iraqi capital.

They are repairing the captured Iraqi airbases at Tallil outside An Nasariya and at al-Amarah to base and resupply their own air power. They are securing the Euphrates bridges at Najaf and Nasariya, which means clearing the houses and buildings within sniper and mortar range. And U.S. Marines fought a long battle Thursday in An Nasariyah against pro-Saddam fedayeen.

The question is whether the Iraqi commanders will cooperate with the new American strategy. So far, they have proved capable of delivering some nasty surprises, and Iraqi leaders are now talking openly of fighting a long campaign of attrition against the coalition forces that seems drawn equally from the defense of Stalingrad and the Vietcong guerillas.

In a long news conference in Baghdad Thursday, Iraq's defense minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmed, suggested Iraq had its own counter-strategy. He acknowledged that coalition forces might encircle Baghdad within 5 to 10 days, but sooner or later they would have to try to enter the city.

"The enemy must come inside Baghdad, and that will be its grave," he said. "We feel that this war must be prolonged so the enemy pays a high price. God willing, Baghdad will be impregnable. We will fight to the end. The longer the American and British soldiers stay in our country, the more they will pay in lives."

"The enemy can bypass the resistance and go in the desert as far as it wants. In the end, where can he go? He has to enter the city," he said, stressing that this war for which the Iraqi army had been preparing for the last year had barely begun. "It can't be decided in 10 days. It could be decided in a month, two months or more."

Nor was he overawed by U.S. air power, which Iraqi generals had been studying since the first Gulf War. By moving at night and in small groups and using camouflage, Iraqi forces had learned to survive it.

"The regular army is well dug-in and soldiers' fox-holes are hard to hit accurately," he said. "Our casualties from air power so far have not been heavy."

And while the Iraqi capital soaked up U.S. attacks in house-by-house fighting, the Iraqis were determined to keep up the guerilla strikes against the U.S. supply lines.

"They are a snake that is stretched over 500 km, we would like to stretch them even further and then start to chop them up," Iraqi Information Minister Mohammad Saeed al-Sahaf told Abu Dhabi TV.

In short, the commanders of both sides now think they have found their killing ground. For the Iraqis, it will be the streets of Baghdad and the enemy's stretched and vulnerable lines of communication. For the U.S. and British commanders, the killing ground will be the 1200 square miles of the Sunni triangle south of Baghdad. This war is becoming a struggle between two differing concepts of the war of attrition — in which the side with the greater political will to take casualties and resist internal dissent has usually won.

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