Iraqis opt for delay as defense

US officials insist they're on target, but American troops face hurdles as Hussein's troops move south of Baghdad.

One week into war with Iraq, US commanders and their civilian overseers are seeing as much sniping off the battlefield as they are in the Iraqi desert.

Critics - including prominent retired generals - want to know why Saddam Hussein appears to remain unshocked and unawed by US cruise missiles and bombs. They're also wondering why Iraqi Republican Guard and other units are putting up a stiff fight along the road to Baghdad, and why "liberated" Iraqis aren't waving American flags.

It may have been that certain administration officials - Vice President Dick Cheney among them - left the impression that the war would be over soon. But "soon" is a relative thing in war, and as every West Point graduate learns, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Military officials insist that things are going well. "We do have some pockets of resistance that require our attention, and we're dealing with those," Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at US Central Command headquarters in Qatar yesterday. "But it does not hinder our ultimate aim, it doesn't change our timeline, and it doesn't change the ultimate outcome."

Others agree.

"The truth is that the war is going well," says Charles Peña, director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "We've closed in on Baghdad in less than a week. We've experienced very low casualties for an operation of this scope. While I'm not cheerleading for the war, people need to put what's happened so far in perspective."

Still, Mr. Peña cautions that the "real war" will begin at Baghdad.

The problem, as others see it, is that US forces poised 50 miles or less from Baghdad (and with supply lines stretching some 250 miles back to Kuwait) need more help on the ground. And with no entry into Iraq from Turkey, that means waiting for more troops to bypass continued fighting in the south and join up.

"They can't really hold up in mid-Iraq for weeks, waiting for more combat power; they can't limit the main battle to the south," says Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist.

"Their problem is time: Time is on Saddam's side," says Captain Seaquist. "The longer this goes, the more general Arab opinion will solidify. And here at home public opinion is already swinging. Don't discount the potential for instant backbiting in the Pentagon by the 'I told you so' crowd that [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld has bulldozed."

Before the war started, some airpower enthusiasts had predicted that "shock and awe" would hasten regime change. But in wars past, present, and likely future, it's a combination of ground and air assault that usually brings victory on the battlefield.

"Indeed, the problem may be that we have bombed Iraq intermittently over more than 12 years and the Iraqis have become rather resilient," says military analyst Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Psychologically, it is very hard to shock them."

Another miscalculation - at least on the part of some who advocated going to war - was the potential for many Iraqis rising up to help overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. But Mr. Hussein still appears almost daily on television; the US-led coalition in the last Gulf War left anti-Hussein groups to be violently put down; and some of Hussein's most-feared troops are trying to ensure that no one so much as waves hello to American soldiers. (One woman who did so, according to one report, was found hanged the next day.)

"The fact that the Shiites in the south did not turn against the government en masse suggests that they don't trust the US," says retired Army Colonel Dan Smith. That distrust, he warns, may not dissipate after Hussein is gone and could resurge against US troops, as it has in Afghanistan, where Kabul is a Western island. Or as another military source describes the potential scenario: "The leadership collapses, but the faithful endure."

In addition, Iraqi Republican Guard units - rather than choosing to "step aside," as Vice President Cheney predicted 10 days ago - apparently have come out to meet US forces advancing toward Baghdad. Yesterday, helicopter pilots in central Iraq reported seeing a convoy of some 1,000 vehicles with an estimated 5,000 Republican Guard troops headed south toward Marine positions.

At the same time, the decision to ring most Iraqi military assets around Baghdad (including antiaircraft artillery and suspected chemical weapons as well as Republican Guard units) could be a key tactical decision on the part of Iraq.

"General Franks said we had not seen any coherent decisions on the battlefield from them," says retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner. "Is there another possibility?"

Iraqi military manuals describe defense techniques much like our own, talking about delaying as a form of defense, he says. "They have said they wanted to suck us into the Baghdad for the fight. Is it possible that is not just rhetoric? The Germans used this kind of defense in both World War I and World War II. Napoleon found the same situation unfolded before him when he advanced to take Moscow."

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