Troops gird for muzzle-to-muzzle combat

As US soldiers conduct pinprick hits in Baghdad, a key task is to reassure the civilian population.

The violence of war continues in the neighborhoods and suburbs of Baghdad, where combat has become point-blank.

But over the next few weeks, the most important US soldiers and marines in Iraq are likely to be those specializing in civil affairs. They carry weapons, and they're trained to fight.

But their main task is to work with local people - giving assurances that their children are safe, seeing that the basics of daily living become mundane once again, and then helping organize civilian leaders. Meanwhile, the war on the ground goes on as US forces continue their aggressive patrolling and probing, sometimes engaging Iraqi defenses and proving to all who see them - military and civilian alike - that they are taking control of the city.

It'll mainly be low-intensity conflict with spots of heavy fighting - depending on how hard the Special Republican Guard and other security services closest to Saddam Hussein continue to resist. So far at least, those Iraqi units have shown themselves willing to take heavy casualties against heavily-armored US patrols.

"The most important thing right now is not to get overconfident or cocky," says Charles Peña of the Cato Institute. "I still think we could be thrown a few surprises before it's all done."

At the same time, most of the surprises so far - from the US point of view - have been positive. The trip to Baghdad took far less time than expected. Civilian casualties and other collateral damage has been less than critics had predicted. Chemical and biological weapons have not been used.

"The prevailing view among pundits is that these forces have had years to prepare the capital for battle, and we are walking into a clever trap," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Alexandria, Va. "However, the Iraqi military has performed so ineptly thus far that it's hard to believe it will suddenly get good within" Baghdad.

After two weeks of exhaustive fighting, there is the temptation to let down one's guard when dangers persist or - in some ways worse - to run up the American flag and declare victory when that can be seen as offensive by those the US-led coalition is trying to liberate. Besides, much of the country - including other major cities - are yet to be secured.

"There are many other parts of the country where we have not taken control," Air Force Maj. Gen. Victor Renuart reminded reporters at Central Command headquarters in Qatar over the weekend. That includes such cities as Basra, Karbala, Al Kut, Amara, and Najaf.

Other observers say gaining such control involves more than major cities and initial military dominance. "The only way to avoid another Afghanistan, where the central government 'controls' the capital but little else, is to get a grip on the towns and villages throughout the country," says retired Army Col. Daniel Smith.

There's another important parallel with Afghanistan, he says. "Everyone is fixated on the Shiites and Kurds and to a lesser extent the Sunnis, Turkmens, and Christian Chaldeans. But these large groups also are divided into 150 major and some 2,000 minor tribal units where you can have varying alliances and cabals that have nothing to do with being for or against Saddam and the Baath Party."

For now, the main goal is securing Baghdad, a city of 4.6 million people that spreads over an area the size of Atlanta. The key US asset could be Iraqis themselves, especially the Shiites who make up nearly half the city's population. They must be convinced that it's in their interest to cooperate with the bulked-up Americans in their suits of body armor. And soon after, they must see that the US and its allies mean what they say about rebuilding the country.

"We should be carpet-bombing the place with doctors, nurses, public-health people, education restart helpers," says retired Navy Capt. Larry Seaquist.

At Sunday's Central Command briefing, new photos of schools being reopened in parts of southern Iraq were added to the usual videos of bombs destroying Iraqi tanks and aircraft.

President Bush and military briefers also take pointed note of the tons of US wheat being delivered to secured areas of Iraq. That's an important element of humanitarian aid (also, incidentally, a key domestic political issue in farm states). But Iraq has large agricultural capacity, and more important long term will be restoring those to productivity.

One early goal: restoring power and taking over state radio and TV facilities. Power is needed not only to communicate but also to run water and sanitation facilities. If people can be persuaded not to leave (or to return home if they've fled) because water and power are back on, the humanitarian situation can be alleviated - at least for the short term.

One tricky issue is how to handle the elusive Mr. Hussein. There's a degree of wishful thinking in US officials saying he's "isolated and irrelevant." If he's not alive, his specter in the form of body doubles has been able to make a pointed presence - which must be inspiring to some Iraqis and intimidating to others who might otherwise be willing to throw in with the "liberators."

All of this will be heavily intelligence-driven. It will combine the information provided by Special Operations and CIA assets, those Iraqis who feel secure enough to collaborate with the Americans, and the newest high-tech gear such as "Hunter" pilotless drones. (Historical note: This war has seen the largest use of Special Operations Forces since the Vietnam War.)

US soldiers and marines no doubt will prevail in the end, but several major challenges and dangers remain. The world is full of Stingers and other portable air-defense systems. It will thus take a while to make the newly renamed Baghdad International Airport safe for US aircraft. Also, Baghdad has many miles of hardened tunnels and underground bunkers. Securing those will be dangerous work.

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