Iraq War: Second Phase Unfolds

AS the US-led war on Iraq enters its third week, the contours of a revised strategy, necessitated by the serious reverses suffered by US and British forces due to fierce Iraqi resistance over the first ten days, are emerging fairly clearly. The US-British campaign in this second phase is taking shape quite differently from what had been planned and from how it had embarked a fortnight ago.

Reverses Force Revissed Strategy

In both form and ferocity, the Iraqi resistance clearly took the Anglo-American military command by surprise. In a sensational reversal of the classic guerilla warfare strategy, enunciated for instance during the Chinese revolution, of capturing the countryside and surrounding the towns, the Iraqi forces withdrew from the countryside into cities and towns from where they attacked the advancing US-British forces with artillery and mortar, ambushed flanking and rear elements, and effectively blocked the forward movement of the much better armed US and British armoured columns. In town after town along the Euphrates to the west, in places such as Naasiriyah, Najaf, Karbala and Kut, US forces found themselves forced into prolonged engagements, drawing them nearer and virtually into urban centres and close-quarter combat in which their technological superiority is virtually neutralised. On the eastern flank along the Tigris, the British advance is stalled almost where it started, unable to proceed much beyond Iraq’s second largest city of Basrah in the south near the Kuwaiti border and Iraq’s only port of Umm Qasr on the Shatt-el-Arab waterway.

US and British formations at the outskirts of each town are being pinned down by Iraqi forces, defeating the original strategy of bypassing these urban centres en route to Baghdad. Further advances are being prevented also by overstretched supply lines caused by rapid and leap-frogging forward movement and by the unanticipated resistance, disrupting what was planned to be a huge, uninterrupted column of troops and armour all the way to Baghdad.  Instead, Anglo-American force concentrations are highly dispersed with a poor supply chain. The US 3rd Infantry and 7th Cavalry, which had raced ahead, are stuck near Naasiriyah, almost 200 km away from rear supply echelons and reportedly low on fuel, food and ammunition.

US and Britain appear to be preparing for prolonged battles in each of these urban centres even as they try to overcome resistance, wait for reinforcements, strive to repair and consolidate supply lines and await a redrawn plan for an assault on Baghdad.

Current Trends In The War

In the meantime, as sandstorms blowing across Iraq cleared last week, the US and Britain stepped up aerial bombardment of Baghdad and all these towns. Sunday witnessed the heaviest air strikes on Iraq to date. Over 1800 sorties, that is more than 1 sortie each minute, were flown by US and British aircraft, compared to a daily average of 1000-1500 sorties hitherto. Targets in and around Baghdad, especially various points in the south of the city indicating the probable direction of the final push, constituted over 60 per cent of these sorties compared to around 20 per cent till the weekend. This sharp increase in aerial assaults on Baghdad serves to make up for the present shortfall in US ground assault capabilities and also seeks to avoid the mistakes made earlier in not dealing properly with defences in Iraqi towns and cities. Apart from major TV and telephone infrastructure in Baghdad which continued to be pounded for the third day running, the aerial bombardment mainly targeted elite Republican Guard units of the Medina, Hammurabi and Baghdad divisions seeking to degrade these forces as well as artillery, armour and anti-aircraft capability defending the capital. Iraqi commanders were forced elsewhere to disavow static and hard defensive formations of tanks and artillery around major towns where they extremely vulnerable to aerial attack.

The same tactics are being adopted by US forces in other towns as well, with some signs of success. In the past couple of days, very heavy fighting has taken place in Najaf and Naasiriyah with US forces now being able to control several suburbs and settlements on the outskirts, pushing the Iraqi fighters deeper into inner-city areas. In Naasiriyah, US forces, otherwise concentrated mostly to the south, attacked the town from the north, thus cutting off any possible retreat towards or reinforcements from Baghdad, and have also secured a key bridge across the Euphrates. US tactics now may well put into effect mini-sieges in each of these towns, ringed by relatively lighter armour and forces in view of degraded Iraqi defences, bottling Iraqi fighters in deep within the towns, and wait out the situation pending the assault on Baghdad rather than venturing into street warfare for total control of these urban centres. Recent foolhardy tactics by Iraqi tank formations near Basrah to venture into open ground in counter-attacks, where they were easily picked off by superior tanks or from the air, are not likely to be repeated.

But retaining forces around each town while simultaneously pushing forward on Baghdad will require much larger troop and armour concentrations. These are expected to be provided by a fresh induction of about 1,20,000 US troops including 30,000 of the hi-tech and highly mechanised Texas-based US 4th Infantry, all of which, however, will take close to two weeks to be fully positioned for combat inside Iraq.

Claims And Realities

British forces in the south also appear to be registering some minor but perhaps significant gains. With tactics similar to those discussed above, in Basrah British troops are patrolling areas in the city suburbs and outskirts gradually increasing the area under their influence. Al Faw peninsula and the Rumeilla oil fields are also “secure but not safe” as British commanders put it. Late Monday, Britain claimed to have taken the nearby town of Zubayr after heavy fighting, but similar claims made earlier turned out to be false. In Umm Qasr, while the town itself has not been secured, British control over surrounding areas appears strong enough for them to be prepared to open a fresh water pipeline from Kuwait which will bring in 2.6 million litres of badly needed water.

New fronts are also likely to open up in the coming days. In northern Iraq, where Turkey refused to allow US troops to operate from its soil, heavy aerial bombardment in the north especially of the strategic town of Kirkuk early last week was followed by landings of troops and armour at nearby Harrir airbase in preparation for opening up a new front from the north. Iraqi forces patrolling ridge lines in Kalak on the “red line” on the 38th parallel, separating the autonomous Kurd areas stretching to the border with Turkey, have been heavily pounded from the air and have tactically withdrawn into Kirkuk following the strategy which has worked well elsewhere in south and central Iraq. With continued aerial bombardments in the north in the strategic oil-rich regions around Mosul, in Sham Shamal near the Iranian border in the north-east, in Erbil near the now established US airbase at Harrir, the US military is well placed to establish a strong base in the north for launching operations from there. With Iraqi forces in the area having no anti-aircraft defences and no positions on the surrounding high ground, the US is starting to bring in tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy artillery aboard C-17 Globemaster transporters from Germany and elsewhere.

Even at this rate, however, building up a brigade-level force could take upto two weeks which is increasingly looking as the time threshold for a concerted push on Baghdad itself. Mystery surrounding a phantom-like column, with no “embedded” reporters or other press reports about its doings, pushing up further to the West than the main column moving up the Euphrates, also appeared to be clearing up last week. The whereabouts of the 101st Airborne Division, a key US offensive formation whose arrival in this theatre early this month convinced most military observers that the US invasion was indeed imminent, were also not clearly known. In a significant development, the 101st late last week appeared in the west of Karbala, closer to Baghdad than any other US formation till then, having come across the western desert from the direction of Saudi Arabia, thus signaling the potential opening of a western front and an assault on Tikrit and other important towns in that region.

US-British And Iraqi Casual Ties

The heightened US-British aerial attacks, moving closer to populated areas, hitherto mostly by missiles and smart-bombs but increasingly using cluster bombs and normal munitions from B-52s and close-quarter attacks by Cobra and Apache helicopters, are bringing in their wake even greater civilian casualties than have been seen to date. Two not-so-smart bombs have hit crowded market places in Baghdad during the past week, killing over 100 innocent people including women and children. Iraqi spokesmen have said 460 Iraqi civilians have so far been killed in US-British attacks.

Iraqi civilian deaths and casualties, and destruction of civilian property, have been graphically brought into people’s homes by Iraqi TV and by numerous Arabic TV channels, notably Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. These have inflamed public opinion in the world, especially in neighbouring countries from where 4,000 suicide-fighters are said to have reached Iraq to join the resistance against the invading forces. This is also hardening opposition to the US-led invasion within Iraq, even among those who have little love lost for Saddam Hussein or his Ba’athist regime.

The vast asymmetry between the US-British and Iraqi military has forced the latter to adopt any means to counter it, chiefly withdrawing inside urban centres and drawing US-British fire into populated areas. Some civilians have attempted to flee Basrah and Iraqi paramilitaries are rumoured to be preventing any further exodus, but no similar incidents have been reported elsewhere. Much to the chagrin of the US-British axis, Iraqi anger remains directed against them and no “uprisings” have taken place. But it would be well to remember that, guerilla tactics and anger against a foreign invasion apart, Saddam Hussein is no Mao Zedong or Ho Chi Minh and the Ba’ath Party does not hold the same place in Iraqi hearts as the patriotic and revolutionary forces did in China or Vietnam.

US and British fatalities admitted to date number 76, an extremely high figure considering the sanitised, remote-controlled campaigns the US is known to prefer and has got used to in Kosovo and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan. With the kind of close-quarter battles likely to take place in the coming weeks, especially if street-fighting were to ensue in Baghdad and other cities, Anglo-British deaths and casualties are likely to be considerably higher. Casualties and deaths from “friendly fire” are also likely to increase beyond the high figures already witnessed. In the past week, British tank formations have fired at each other near Basrah, US fighters have shot at their own Patriot missile systems, over a dozen American soldiers were wounded by “friendly” machine gun fire and late Friday night 2 US soldiers were killed while sleeping after being run over by US tanks! At one stage, more British soldiers had been killed in “friendly fire” than in engagements with Iraqi forces! The closer US-British and Iraqi forces get to each other around urban centres, with more close-quarter engagements and aerial strikes by the former, the higher are likely to be friendly fire casualties. US forces in particular seem to be over-reliant on technology, perhaps trained too much under simulated conditions, and appear to get anxious and error-prone in actual combat.

US casualties in particular may significantly influence domestic opinion in the US. Already a perceptible shift has been reported in US surveys which show that, whereas support for the war since it started still hovers around 70 per cent, those believing it would be short and effective have dropped to 36 per cent from a similar figure. The nervousness and defensiveness of the US military and civilian defense leadership is readily visible in recent press interviews and appearances, with defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particularly having come under severe criticism in wide sections of the press. With the original strategy having clearly gone wrong, resulting in a much longer campaign and more US casualties, finger pointing has already started with the military blaming the CIA for not having supplied intelligence about the surprise package of the war, the Fedayeen Saddam, with Rumsfeld being blamed for imposing himself upon military planners and Colin Powell being blamed for mishandling the diplomatic front. One could see more of this in days to come unless things turn around on the battlefield.

UN & Humanitarian Aid

Meanwhile, another intriguing aspect of the war is gathering momentum. Food, water and other essential humanitarian aid is beginning to enter Iraq, currently in a trickle but soon perhaps in greater quantities. The British ship Sir Galahad first sailed into Umm Qasr last week with food and water. On Sunday, the first UNICEF convoy entered from Turkey into Iraq, at Solopi.

The issue of humanitarian aid, which several correspondents have described as perhaps the most important weapon for the Anglo-Americans in the Iraq war, is gaining importance with each passing day. US and, till now, mainly British forces are distributing food, water and other supplies under armed protection, with reportedly mixed response. The aid is being taken, of course, but not without suspicion, even hostility, towards the invading forces and the very act of bringing aid while continuing to bomb towns and cities with considerable destruction of civilian lives and property.

The role of the UN in handling and distributing humanitarian assistance in the coming days will take on considerable significance with strategic consequences. The Security Council resolution adopted unanimously re-starts the oil for food programme suspended abruptly on commencement of the invasion by the US and its allies, but under the UN alone rather than under the UN and the Iraqi government as before. Many factors, apart from the need to reach assistance to the beleaguered Iraqi population, such as wanting to re-unite the UN and increasing its role in Iraq, may have prompted countries such as France, Russia and China to go along with this resolution. But Iraq has opposed, indeed denounced, it as a tacit acceptance if not endorsement of the US-led invasion.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan had earlier stated that the onus for humanitarian assistance lay squarely upon the “occupying forces” under the Geneva convention but will now be called upon to implement this UNSC resolution without the support of the Iraqi government! UN spokespersons are already saying the UN will distribute aid in “secure” areas, which can only mean areas under control of US-British forces and mostly free of hostilities. In such an eventuality, UN-administered relief will be seen virtually as part of the US-led campaign. If UN relief workers do not feel safe in other areas, then they cannot themselves distribute supplies. In this case, will they, or perhaps more important, will they be allowed to, distribute them through the Iraqi government? What will be the stand and role of UN officials, of the anti-war Security Council members and other countries on this question? Will the US and Britain use this developing situation to their advantage or will the majority in the international community opposed to this illegal war be able to turn the tables? The role and standing of the UN, the shape of geo-political alignments both during and after this war and its very outcome war could be determined by answers to these questions