American forces advancing on Baghdad are exposing a potentially dangerous flaw in new US military tactics as they bypass towns en route, leaving Iraqi troops there to inflict casualties from the rear.
While US military leaders say the five-day campaign is going well overall, they have clearly been surprised by the strength of Iraqi resistance in Basra and other towns in southern Iraq that have still not fallen, even while advance columns of US infantry are only 100 miles from the Iraqi capital.
The disappearance of two British marines, ambushed in southern Iraq on Sunday, the deaths and capture of several US soldiers in a supply convoy south of Nasiriyah and continued skirmishing in the small town of Umm Qasr illustrate the possible drawbacks of other units' rapid drive toward Baghdad, military analysts say.
US-led coalition forces are making "rapid and in some cases dramatic" progress in Iraq but also have met sporadic resistance, US commander Gen. Tommy Franks said Monday at a Central Command press briefing in Doha, Qatar. Franks was joined at the briefing by Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, who showed gunsight video taken by attacking warplanes of damage to an Iraqi intelligence service complex, a MiG fighter and a tank.
In the campaign against Saddam Hussein's regime, Franks said his forces captured 3,000 prisoners.
The campaign is based on novel tactics, supported by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, despite misgivings among the top military brass. The tactics depend on air support and Special Forces to compensate for the relatively small number of regular troops on the ground.
"This is not a problem in theory, if you leave only light forces behind," says Michael McGinty, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank in London.
"But if you require heavy forces to contain what is in the towns, as we saw in Umm Qasr on Sunday, you have strategic consumption problems," he adds.
"Strategic consumption" is the difficulty that Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler ran into in Russia, where the need to leave forces behind in order to control territory weakened the French and German armies' fighting front.
There were indications on Monday morning that Iraqi forces still posed a danger in areas through which US and British troops passed several days ago.
Franks said that US forces had "intentionally bypassed enemy formations," but added that Iraq's "Fedayeen" militia had been harassing the US rear in southern Iraq.
"I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected," Franks said. Cleaning up the bypassed forces, he said, would take some time "across the days."
The US military canceled a planned trip for journalists to the Rumaila oil field, saying it was unsafe. "There are still bad guys with guns. It's a war zone," US military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy told Reuters.
British military spokesman Gp. Capt. Al Lockwood told reporters that a British convoy of marines had been ambushed in southern Iraq by "irregular forces providing difficulties for us with their guerrilla tactics."
He said, however, that "we are maintaining our advance ... and will come back and look after them in our own time."
Some observers doubted that would be possible. "There is obviously a problem at the moment, and if they don't stop to regroup shortly they will outrun their supply chain that is a prime target for Iraqi harassing parties," warns Charles Heyman, a former British army officer who now works as an analyst for Jane's Land Armies. "You need a lot more force protection on the supply routes."
In a televised address to the Iraqi people, President Saddam Hussein predicted Monday that invading US and British forces "will lose more and more [soldiers] and they will not be able to escape lightly from their predicament.
"These forces entered our lands and where they penetrated they became entangled, desert behind them," he added.
War tactics have precedent
US war tactics have a naval precedent in the World War II Pacific campaign, when allied forces "island hopped," leaving isolated Japanese garrisons to surrender when the war ended.
US military planners always suspected that Mr. Hussein's tactics would be to draw invading forces into the cities, where US and British forces are reluctant to venture for fear of large-scale civilian casualties that would undermine their desired image as liberating troops.
"What we had not expected was that Iraqi towns would appear to surrender, but that small cells of Republican Guard units would then rise up," not always in uniform, says Mr. McGinty.
With advancing US troops thinner on the ground than they were during the last Gulf War, "flank protection is not as robust as it ought to be," McGinty says. While helicopters and strike aircraft might be able to make up for the lack of ground troops, he explains, most of them are flying off aircraft carriers in the Gulf that cannot turn aircraft around as fast as bases on land.
This could be a particular problem for the central column of US troops as it advances on the city of Al Kut, southeast of Baghdad, says Maj. Heyman. "They have nine major bridges ahead of them, and if they get across them and then the Iraqis blow the bridges, they will have real difficulties with their supply lines."