AS the war on Iraq enters 6 day, the earlier smug complacence of the US and British military circles of a quick victory, is evaporating. The brutal reality of war, crumbling buildings, little children dying and American body bags — is creating a sombre mood even in the US where war for a “regime change” had some support.
The military strategy on both sides is unfolding. It is clear that the US-UK forces regard Baghdad and taking out of Saddam Hussein as the only target. They are progressing on two fronts in the south, one along Euphrates and the other along Tigris in order to envelop Baghdad. In the north, they have landed some paratroopers for special operations, their northern operation stalled due to their inability to secure Turkey as base for their attacks on Iraq. The US-UK forces bypassed population centres such as Basra, leaving some forces to sit outside these centres while the bulk of its troops and armour proceed towards Baghdad.
For the Iraqis, their strategy has been not to wage a frontal battle against overwhelming air and technically superior forces on flat desert land. They have allowed them to pass and then hit the supply lines with sudden attacks. The battle in Nasiriyah in which US has suffered serious casualities including prisoners of war came after the US forces had secured two bridges in the city over Euphrates and thought that they were facing no resistance. The pattern is similar to that used in Um Kasr earlier, the port town of 4,000 people one kilometre from the border of Kuwait and now in Basra, the second largest city of Iraq.
The US forces had prepared their plans based on two assumptions. One was that in southern Iraq, Saddam’s grip was weak and the people would welcome the US-UK forces. Not only has this not happened, even the US-UK media concedes that Iraqi population is hostile to the invasion.
The second assumption was that only the elite Republican Guard Divisions, stationed in and around Baghdad, are the only ones who would fight while the rest of the Iraqi Army would crumble once they are isolated in pockets. It is clear that this has not happened either, with Iraqi forces being able to maintain their resistance in places such as Um Kasr even on the 6 day, long after the Americans had announced its fall.
If we look at the topography of Iraq, it will be clear that apart from the land lying between Tigris ad Euphrates, southern Iraq consists largely of desert. Therefore, facing a far superior military force on the desert would make little sense for the Iraqi army. The land there provides hardly any cover and the Iraqi armour and forces would be sitting ducks in any conflict with US-UK forces. However, the land between Euphrates and Tigris consists of irrigation canals, and is a more densely populated. The fight for Baghdad that is now developing to its south is in this area and is therefore on a terrain better suited then the empty desert of southern Iraq.
In the first battle to the south of Baghdad, the US-UK forces threw in a force of 32 Apache helicopter gun-ships. These forces flew low to avoid short-range ground to air missiles and were beaten back by very heavy anti-aircraft and small arms fire. Not only was one helicopter gunship downed but all others took heavy damage. The US-UK forces are now resorting to high altitude bombing as a change of tactics to soften up the Iraqi forces.
There are two other issues plaguing the US-UK forces. First is that the seven million Ba’ath party members who have arms are not an empty threat. The repeated talk of Fedayeen attacks means that this force is indeed active and is inflicting damage. The second is that the decision to sit outside the population centres hoping they will surrender is not working. Unless they are able to “clear” these cities of Iraqi resistance, their supply lines are stretched and open to continuous attacks. The fact that Um Kasr port is not yet open though a stone’s throw away from Iraq means that they are also not able to move military supplies into Iraq through Um Kasr; and have to depend largely on the land route from Kuwait.
To add to the American problems, is Turkey entering northern Iraq, an area held by Kurdish groups. The US regards these Kurdish groups to be its allies in its fight against Saddam, and therefore their insistence in the last 10 years of a no-fly zone over this part of Iraq. Now that Turkey, which clearly does not want an independent Kurdish state to emerge, has entered the fray with more 10,000 troops crossing into Iraq, the two allies of the US are poised for an armed confrontation, jeopardising the US plans in northern Iraq. The US has warned Turkey not to enter Iraq, which Turkey has ignored using the same American argument of “pre-empire war” as its justification to enter Iraq.
There is little doubt that this is an unequal battle. On one side are the most powerful military machine in the world, with complete air superiority, a huge propaganda machine and almost unlimited resources. On the other, a country is reeling under 12 years of sanctions with its 80 per cent of military capability destroyed during and after the 91 war. It is not whether Iraq can succeed against such an overwhelming force. The crucial question is whether Iraqi forces can inflict enough damage and hold out long enough for the US public to realise this is a brutal war unlike the 91 Kuwait War. In Kuwait, the Iraqi forces were either in hostile territory or caught in the open. Here they are fighting for their country and it is increasingly clear, have the support of their countrymen. The road to Baghdad has not been lined with Iraqis cheering the US-UK forces but with people who are making clear their hatred for the invaders.
This week the war enters its decisive phase. With the tactics of moving on, leaving armed cities in the rear failing, the US-UK forces are now subjecting Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf and Baghdad to both aerial and artillery bombardment. With this, the civilian casualties are going to mount. Already, the British forces are trying to force their way into Basra, giving up their earlier strategy of waiting for the Iraqi’s to surrender. And there is no way if they could not force Um Kasr, a town of 4,000 to surrender, they can capture Baghdad without fighting within the city. There will be bloody street battles as the US-UK forces enter these cities including Baghdad. And with mounting US-UK casualties and civilian deaths, the war will look a lot messier than the surgical strike that the US had promised. Instead, the true colonial nature of the enterprise is emerging with the US now floating tenders for “reconstruction” and “management” of ports and facilities in Iraq for the next four years. The US could indeed win the War in the coming weeks, but they have already lost the peace in Iraq in the first week of this war.
30th March 2003