On two 'fronts,' the war grinds on
A wave of suicide attacks and fresh outbursts of guerrilla fighting spur tactical shifts, despite an upbeat Pentagon.
WASHINGTON — Eleven days into the fighting in Iraq, it's clear that two wars are being fought.
One is on the ground and in the air: A shifting mix of aerial pounding of Baghdad by US warplanes; dangerous urban fighting in and around cities south of there involving "unconventional" guerrilla warfare and sometimes suicidal attacks which have some senior officers remembering their days in Vietnam; and the shadowy use of special operations units to target Baath Party leaders for capture or killing, and to win hearts and minds in villages in the countryside.
The other - and perhaps more important - war is for world opinion over an invasion that was controversial in the first place.
On one side are video images of precision-guided weapons deftly taking out tanks hidden underneath bridges, crisp and confident briefers with their daily mantra that the fight to oust the regime of Saddam Hussein "will be at the time and place of our choosing," and photos of Shiites in southern Iraq eagerly getting food and water from troops.
On the other side are images of weeping mothers and wounded children in Baghdad neighborhoods and hospitals, torn-apart marketplaces hit, perhaps, by American bombs gone astray, and military officers in Baghdad grimly promising that "the people of Iraq will receive the aggressors in the way that they should be received."
The Pentagon fights back with a change in verbiage. "Fedayeen" become "paramilitaries" become "bands of thugs" become "death squads." With the suicide bombing that killed four soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division Saturday, the link between the Hussein regime and terrorism is further pressed.
But as with Hamas or Islamic Jihad in Israel, car bombs will be seen in much of the Arab and Muslim world not as terrorism but as the legitimate tool of "martyrs." For years, Saddam Hussein has been paying large sums to the families of suicide bombers in Israel. Some US officials fear that Iraqi use of chemical weapons - if it comes to that - also might be seen as a legitimate means of protecting against a Western "invader" aligned with Israel.
From the start, US commanders said they did not intend to conduct a "fair fight." They planned to take control quickly, attacking with overwhelming force an Iraqi military that had been severely degraded since its defeat in the first Gulf War.
Like lesser battlefield opponents in the past (most notably North Vietnam and the Viet Cong) Iraqis never intended to fight fair either - or at least in a conventional sense according to the generally accepted rules of war involving civilians and civilian facilities such as hospitals.
The Iraqis have thrown a wrench into the US plan through a variety of means.
For example, small Republican Guard and paramilitary units have propositioned weapons and uniforms in and around Nasiriyah. Dressed in civilian clothes, they move from cache to cache, attacking US marines before slipping back into the general populace. "My sense is that this is a thought-out and fairly well prepared response to what they thought would be coalition vulnerabilities and their own capabilities to deal with our forces," says a retired senior officer.
All of which recalls a conversation between an American officer who had fought in Vietnam and his North Vietnamese opponent once the war was over and Saigon had become Ho Chi Minh City. "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield," the American said. "That's true," came the reply. "But it's also irrelevant."
US military commanders say they're satisfied with how the war is going.
"Where we stand today is not only acceptable but truly remarkable," coalition commander Gen. Tommy Franks said Sunday at Central Command headquarters in Qatar.
Still, even some who generally agree with that assessment find things to worry about.
"I am extremely impressed by the capability of US forces against an adversary much more challenging than any we have faced since the last Gulf War," says military analyst Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
"But I think we were clearly surprised by the intensity of resistance in the south and the continuing loyalty of Saddam's forces," he adds. "This does not bode well for the post-Saddam era."
Another problem for the US: weaknesses in high-tech command and control.
One of the most dramatic problems, according to a former Pentagon strategist, is the failure of the much-vaunted military-technical revolution.
"After 20 years of intense investment in computers and communications so that we had 'information dominance' of the battlefield, the reports from the units on the ground were that they didn't know where or even who the enemy was, they couldn't get in contact with their own units, etc.," says the strategist. "And the problem is not just that radars can't tell a friendly civilian from a fedayeen. Our systems are not finding hidden equipment, either."
In addition, the US and its allies don't seem to have destroyed Iraqi command and control systems - an early goal of the bombing campaign. It is likely that runners and other forms of physical communication are being used to direct Republican Guard units outside Baghdad as well as other fighters in the south.
Another apparent weakness is that psychological operations aimed at regime officials and field commanders does not appear to have turned any of the leadership.
All of which leads to what some see as the likelihood of a tough slog for Baghdad, which could put the US in an even more difficult position once the fighting stops.
"The hard question is how many civilians Saddam will force us to kill before we get him," says one analyst.
"He's learned how to use our humanity as a source of tactical leverage, which may force us to fight like him in the streets of Baghdad."
As for the propaganda duel, "the Iraqis, surprisingly, are winning, and not just among the hometown audience in the Arab Middle East," says another retired senior officer.
"Our briefers and senior officials are very clunky, often forcing the impression that they are hiding and manipulating information," he says. "The Iraqi propaganda line - most of it the usual stuff - is nonetheless comparatively accurate and candid."
In spite of US casualties, images of collateral damage to civilians in Iraq, and arguments over whether the US should have sent more troops before invading, the Pentagon and the Bush administration seem to be winning hearts and minds at home.
A new Newsweek poll finds that nearly half (49 percent) say they would support the war even if it lasted more than a year. This same poll has President Bush's approval rating climbing 15 points to 68 percent - well above where it stood on the eve of war.
Whether this rally-round-the-flag attitude persists is an open question.
But for now at least, it does seem to rebut the feeling among those like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden that Americans aren't willing to fight and die in war.