The quicksand of war

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Paul Rogers
24 March 2003

Paul Rogers will be writing twice weekly for the duration of the war.
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The first indication of the unexpected nature of the war with Iraq came just a few hours into the ground invasion. At about 05.30 (London time) on 21 March, the BBC’s 24-hour news channel called up one of its correspondents, Adam Mynott, who was with a group of US soldiers as they crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq.

Whereas other reports had indicated rapid progress of US and British troops, Mynott came on air breathless from having to take cover as the convoy he was with faced up to small arms and rocket attack from Iraqi forces. It was clearly unexpected, and gave the first indication that the Iraqi resistance to the invasion would be fierce.

A tough fight in Umm Qasr

Four days on, US troops are still trying to defeat a group of Iraqi soldiers in the port of Umm Qasr, and substantial British troop deployments are stuck outside of Basra. While the major US forces are moving rapidly up the Tigris/Euphrates valley towards Baghdad, what is happening in south-east Iraq is highly significant.

According to informed sources just before the war started, one of the first major ground campaigns would be the liberation of Basra, Iraq’s second city and a centre for the Shi’a population that had been treated so badly by the Saddam Hussein regime.

As a the New York Times article put it, “a successful and ‘benign’ occupation that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers will create an immediate positive image worldwide of American and British war aims while also undermining Iraqi resistance elsewhere in the country.” Five days into the war, and with US forces facing substantial resistance in several towns and cities, the liberation of Basra is still awaited.

This may seem a small sign, but it is important in the context of the expectation that this would be a straightforward war of liberation for the Iraqi people, with the US demonstrating such firepower and determination that the regime would fall within days – or that there would, at minimum, be massive desertions and surrenders, with resistance limited to a hard core of regime supporters.

It is still possible that the regime will collapse in the next few days, but the least that can be said now is that it seems unlikely. Moreover, whereas resistance was expected in Baghdad, one surprise to invading forces has been the frequent problems posed by small numbers of Iraqi forces operating in areas remote from the regime’s control, and possibly not even in communication with Baghdad.

A conflict of surprises

Any attempt to predict the further development of the war is highly risky, but there are three significant indicators of the unfolding character of the war.

The first is that the bombing of Baghdad, while intensive, has not been on the overwhelming scale expected by many analysts and predicted by US administration officials. Most of the attacks have been directed at narrow military targets, including command and control centres; civilian casualties have been relatively low, at least during the first four nights.

A likely reason for this relative restraint is the necessity of limiting the political impact of civilian casualties. The British prime minister Tony Blair is in an especially vulnerable political position, and even within the Bush administration there will be some idea of the extent of international opposition to the war (although its sheer intensity is largely unreported by the US and UK media).

The second indicator is that the US war plan calls for a very rapid advance towards Baghdad by the equivalent of three divisions numbering perhaps 60,000 troops. This is not actually a very large force and the advance is dependent on secure supply lines and overwhelming use of firepower against any opposition facing the advancing forces.

The use of multiple launch rocket systems, cluster bombs and other area impact weapons (see the article of two weeks ago in this series) is almost certainly causing many deaths and serious injuries among Iraqi conscripts. This is speeding the advance, but does not address the serious security problem presented by small Iraqi units that choose to engage US forces only after the main advance has gone through.

Something similar is happening around Basra, and a picture is now starting to emerge of a risk of guerrilla activity in the coming days, with actions aimed at the more lightly-armed US and British troops that are deployed behind the main advances.

The third indicator is the civilian context of the military campaign. US troops are, unsurprisingly, simply not being welcomed in the way that was confidently expected in Washington, as liberators. There are several possible factors involved here: memories of the failure of the US to support the Shi’a revolt in 1991, the effectiveness of regime propaganda, the underlying force of Iraqi nationalism.

In the light of the military setbacks of the first days of the war, it is possible that the US may yet return to the ‘shock and awe’ bombing tactics that were originally expected, whatever their wider political consequences.

After five days, a new timetable

After five days of war, the regime in Baghdad still seems in control, US forces are moving towards the city, Iraqi resistance is stronger than expected and the whole war is becoming steadily more complex.

There are other complicating factors. Turkish involvement in northern Iraq and Israeli action in Lebanon are both possible, and the US is simultaneously involved in a substantial military operation in Afghanistan.

A quick war with few casualties looks increasingly unlikely. There could be dramatic changes but the second Gulf war seems likely to last not days, but weeks or even months.

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