One war, two battles
A dominating first-week effort by coalition forces confirms that allied military strength is unrivaled. And despite pockets of stiff resistance, US Central Command officers insist the campaign will continue to be waged on "our terms."
But as US-led convoys march toward Baghdad, scattered encounters with guerrilla fighters and paramilitary units point to a troubling reality: Iraq and the allies are not necessarily fighting the same war.
Most military campaigns are symmetrical - both sides fight on equal terms and for similar ends. The first Gulf War was essentially a symmetrical battle.
But "Operation Iraqi Freedom" is different. To achieve their political ends of disarmament and liberation, coalition forces are seeking to topple Saddam Hussein's regime while minimizing damage to Iraq's people and infrastructure.
Mr. Hussein, on the other hand, is fighting to survive. So far, he's asked all Iraqis to take up arms against enemy forces. Reports of fake surrenders, civilian snipers, and forced citizen human shields suggests allied soldiers could have a difficult time discerning combatants from non-combatants.
That difficulty, coupled with stated allied reluctance to inflict civilian casualties, has slowed battle efforts across southern Iraq. In Umm Qasr, for instance, British commanders suggested they could have taken the key port much more quickly had they not been so wary of collateral damage.
Such sensitivity will be tested in the battle for Baghdad. Initial allied hopes that Hussein's regime could be decapitated or toppled from within have fallen as city residents appear to be growing emboldened against the prospect of American-led regime change.
Speculation that residents might take up arms against US-led forces has raised the question: Who are legitimate military targets?
So far, coalition forces have defended themselves from guerrilla tactics. But the line between combatant and non-combatant may be blurred if residents of the Iraqi capital take up arms against allied troops.
"The Geneva Conventions make this point clearly: If you mingle with combat troops as a civilian, you are a legitimate military target," says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It doesn't matter what you wear."
Could the allies achieve their political ends without commanding Baghdad?
"I don't think it's necessary to seize Baghdad," says Philip Coyle, a former assistant secretary of defense and senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "If the people of Baghdad rise up and express themselves against Saddam and against the Iraqi army also, especially of course, the Republican Guard, if they do that, then I don't think it will be necessary."
He says lingering fear of Hussein and uncertainty about the American commitment to support rebellion have dampened Iraqi enthusiasm about the conflict.
"In Basra, people are still angry from the last Gulf War, when they thought they were going to get support from [the US] in an uprising against Saddam Hussein. [The US] didn't come to their aid, and they're still upset about that."
Could Baghdad residents rise up against Hussein? Coyle says it's more unlikely than in Basra. "If we have a series of battles with high losses on the Republican Guard side and/or high surrender rates, that could contribute to people of Baghdad saying, 'Hey, it's going to be safe for us, we don't have to worry anymore.' But they'll have to see that first," Coyle says.
Managing Iraqi perceptions is a key element of this campaign, says Lee Willett, an analyst for UK-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.
"There are two elements to this campaign," he says. "I think there is the military aspect which involves the challenge of "decapitating" Saddam and taking on the Iraqi army. There's also the humanitarian aspect of winning the hearts and minds of the people, which is something to which the armed forces are central. They must be seen as a liberation army, not as an army of occupation. This requires a critical balancing act."
Unlike the first Gulf War, this conflict is being fought exclusively on Iraq's home turf. That fact may help explain the dangerous mingling of Republican Guard units, army soldiers, paramilitary forces, and civilian fighters who are attacking rear allied positions.
"Soldiers will always fight harder on home territory," he says. "So it's definitely part of the Iraqi campaign to drag the coalition forces into urban warfare. Iraqis know these towns and villages. Urban warfare always favors the defender - local knowledge is everything."
Does this mean coalition forces will circumvent, rather than directly confront Baghdad, where urban combat could be bloodiest?
Confrontation that includes urban fighting is inevitable, Willett says.
The street-to-street ground campaign will be unlike anything since WWII. But he stresses that coalition planning accounts for this and notes that both US and UK Marines are well-prepared for urban combat.
"The US Marine corps is the most forward-thinking fighting force in terms of concepts, doctrine, and exercises for urban combat. And the UK Royal Marines and paratroop regiment, they've cut their teeth on the streets of N. Ireland. For the job at hand, the right forces are in place," says Willett.
Military observers have identified Baghdad as a center of gravity, the bulls-eye target which must be hit to win the war. But Willett urges caution.
"The fall of Baghdad does not necessarily mean the fall of the regime," he says.