The low-intensity guerrilla war against US ground forces and their supply lines waged by Iraqi forces is slowing - but not stalling - the American advance toward Baghdad.
The unanticipated resistance in cities such as Nasiriyah, Samawah, and Basra has complicated efforts to resupply US forces with fuel, food, and ammunition five days into the ground war. It also calls into question the Pentagon's decision to begin the war with a "rolling start," before all deployed American forces were in place, including the 4th Infantry Division, which was stalled off the coast of Turkey.
"We were not expecting that kind of resistance from any of those towns," says Gen. Louis Weber of the 20,000-strong 3rd Infantry Division, which is spearheading the ground campaign. "They dispersed the forces so we didn't get a clear picture of them moving in. It was pretty astute," says General Weber, one of the three senior division commanders. He maintains, however, that US forces retain an overwhelming advantage.
"We didn't get the parade we were expecting in the south," says another 3rd Infantry Division officer. The Iraqi Army's 11th Division did not capitulate as anticipated, for example, although a few elements of it joined with Baath Party loyalists in fighting US forces.
The Iraqi military, for its part, was apparently taken aback by the rapid advance of the Third Infantry with its heavily armored forces along Iraq's western flank. Interrogations of Iraqi war prisoners suggest that Iraqi commanders were expecting initially to fight US airborne light infantry. Marine units are also now moving north largely unimpeded, US military officials say.
Iraqi commanders have been forced to respond to the Army and Marine advance by pulling some Republican Guard forces out of their dug in positions around Baghdad, weakening defenses there, the officials say.
The guerrilla tactics Iraqi forces are using to harass US forces and supply lines are being waged by mobile, lightly armed Iraqi Army personnel disguised as civilians, as well as by Baath Party loyalists, the fanatical Saddam Fedayeen and civilians conscripted from villages.
"The little RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] killer teams are moving around," says Maj. Bill Gillespie at the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Early Tuesday, for instance, eight Iraqi's carrying RPGs were approaching the perimeter of a 3rd Infantry Division headquarters and its 703rd support battalion. The group had probed the perimeter Monday night and dispersed after US forces sent up illumination flares. But the enemy returned at around 4 a.m. and were spotted by 3rd Infantry's 1-64 armored battalion, which destroyed them with fire from Bradley fighting vehicles.
Two days earlier, US forces killed an Iraqi soldier disguised as a civilian as he approached the 3rd Infantry encampment. The soldier wore a black leather jacket over his uniform, carried an AK-47, and drove a white pickup truck with two RPGs in the back.
Also on Sunday, Iraqi forces launched artillery attacks on a supply convoy of the 3rd Infantry Division near Samawah, wounding two soldiers. The guerrilla forces are also changing road signs to try to lead supply units to ambush sites, military officials say.
In response, US forces are under orders to detain any civilians who approach the perimeters of military units, and soldiers on guard duty are training their rifles at Iraqi farmers as they work in their fields.
"This is a military unit, and they have no business being here," says Maj. John Chadbourne, executive officer of the 703rd Battalion. "Remember, it was 'camel herders' who threw the Molotov cocktail at the Marines."
Still, such terrorist tactics have so far inflicted relatively few casualties. Only one member of the 3rd Infantry Division soldier has been killed in combat. He was shot in the neck by a sniper. Seven others have been wounded by hostile forces. The bulk of the casualties - 23 of 31 - have been from accidents. "The combat units are the safest guys out here. It's everyone else I worry about," says General Weber.
"We've only had 30 casualties after five days of combat, compared with hundreds of enemy killed. It shows we've got a disciplined organization capable of taking the fight to the enemy," he says.
The Iraqi resistance has also hampered US forces from securing completely one of the supply routes from the south, leading to a clogging of roads by military vehicles. The 3rd Infantry Division alone has an estimated 10,000 vehicles on the move. Meanwhile, frequent sandstorms, such as one on Tuesday, are grounding US helicopters and other aircraft that are both used tactically and for resupply.
"We're being challenged with the weather conditions and the road conditions," says Lt. Col. Glen Steffenhagen, executive officer of the 3rd Infantry's Division Support Command. "What they call a highway [in Iraq] we call Farm Road 68 in the states. But, bottom line, we will get them [combat forces] what they need."