US/UK strategy under pressure as unexpected Iraqi resistance forces troops into heavy fighting

Developing Just Leadership

Our Own Correspondent

Muharram 29, 1424 2003-04-01

Occupied Arab World

by Our Own Correspondent (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 3, Muharram, 1424)

A week after the US and Britain launched their invasion of Iraq on March 20, it is increasingly clear that all is not going smoothly in the campaign. Initial talk of a "quick, clean" campaign soon gave way to a general lowering of expectations from American and British leaders, as it became clear that Iraqis were far from shocked and awed by the US/UK tactics. As Crescent goes to press, on March 26 (Day 7 of the US/UK campaign), it appears that US/UK troops are bogged down on virtually every front.

The US/UK attack on Iraq (in which a small number of Australian special forces are the only non-American or British forces taking part) began in the early hours of March 20 (Baghdad time), when a number of US missiles hit a suburb of Baghdad. US/UK sources later claimed that the attack was an impromptu operation aimed at Saddam Hussain personally, and that the war proper was scheduled to begin the next night.

The ground war began in the early hours of March 21, when US and British troops advanced into Iraq from Kuwait, following intense aerial and artillery bombardment of Iraqi positions in the Faw Peninsula, the Basra area and near the port of Umm Qasr. US troops raised the stars and stripes over the new port area of Umm Qasr at about 9am, in place of the Iraqi flag, although fighting was still taking place in other parts of the port. Later the same morning, US troops also claimed to have secured western Iraqi oilfields, while British troops claimed to have captured and secured the Faw peninsula. Almost a week later, fighting was still taking place throughout the area.

At the same time, early on March 21, US armoured columns were also reported to be making rapid inroads into southern Iraq, heading north towards Baghdad. Euphoric early reports indicated that they were meeting little resistance and were accepting the surrender of large numbers of Iraqi troops. This early progress fuelled expectations of an quick victory.

Meanwhile, Baghdad was being subjected to far less intensive aerial attack than had been anticipated. Although the city has been subjected to nightly bombardment, it appears that government areas were particularly targeted, as the US/UK hoped to topple the regime and that this would break the Iraqi resistance. As it became apparent that the regime would not fold so easily, the bombardment of Baghdad intensified and civilian casualties increased. Local people claimed on March 26, for example, that at lease 45 people had been killed when two major western missiles hit a market area in the Shaab area of the city. (Western journalists said they could confirm only 14 deaths.) However, it appears that, with foreign media still in the city, conveying the effects of the US/UK attacks all over the world, Baghdad has still not been subjected to the sort of beating it took in 1991.

The ground operations in the south of the country, and the situation in Baghdad, have largely dominated the US/UK approach, largely because Iraq’s border with Kuwait has been the only direction from which the US and Britain have been able to launch a major ground invasion. It appears that the US/UK hope had been to capture the southern oil fields, the major towns of the region, and to capture Baghdad in order to try to topple the Ba’athist regime and capture the heart of the country as quickly as possible. This would enable them to claim a quick victory while continuing to pacify any resistance in the rest of the country.

It is clear, however, that there are also major operations in other parts of the country, about which far less information is becoming known. Military analysts have pointed out that far more heavy American and British weaponry was being used, by B-52 bombers flying out of Britain, and from aircraft and naval vessels based in the Persian Gulf region, than could be accounted for by the bombardment observed in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities from which reports are coming out. Clearly, therefore, other parts of the country are being subjected to attacks which are not yet being reported.

In the north of the country, for example, US and British special forces are know to the active with Kurdish irregular forces, fighting both Iraqi military units and other Iraqi forces that might resist the US’s plans for the country post-Saddam. Turkey having finally decided not to permit the US to open a second land front against Iraq from its territory, the only way a more substantial US/UK presence in the north would be possible would be via airborne troops. However, these would risk being isolated, vulnerable and hard to support, and are therefore unlikely to be committed, certainly in large numbers, until Iraqi resistance in the region is subdued.

This US/UK approach is quite different from what had been widely anticipated. In the US-led attack on Iraq in 1991, the country had been subjected to 43 days of intense aerial bombardment before a swift ground campaign against Iraqi troops that had already been virtually destroyed by the bombardment. Talk of "shock and awe" tactics had raised expectations of a similar approach this time round (although Crescent International had suggested in its March 16-30 issue that this might not be case, as the US this time plans to occupy the country, and would thus prefer to keep its infrastructure intact). In fact, what the US/UK have attempted is shock and awe on a far smaller scale: localised bombardments of Iraqi military positions, followed by rapid ground advances hoping to meet minimal resistance from shocked, awed Iraqi troops.

For a few days, it appeared that this approach might be working, as US/UK forces quickly claimed to have occupied large swathes of land, to have driven deep into Iraqi territory, to have been greeted as liberators from Ba’athist rule, and to have accepted the surrender of large numbers of Iraqi troops. It soon became clear, however, that this impression was misleading. By March 26, four days after American troops had claimed to have secured Basra, British forces were unable to enter the city, and declared that it remained a military objective to be achieved. At the same time, US units which had punched deeper into Iraq, pushing towards Baghdad, found themselves involved in heavy fighting near Nasiriya, Najaf and Karbala.

It now appears that the US and the UK may have been drawn into an Iraqi trap. By allowing US/UK troops to push deep into Iraqi territory, occupying large tracts of marshland and desert, the Iraqis have stretched their supply and communications lines, leaving them vulnerable to attack by guerrilla forces. At the same time, Iraqi troops have dug into defensive positions near the major towns and cities on the road to Baghdad. The Iraqi hope is clearly to be able to fight the US/UK forces on their own terms, and on terms which are as disadvantageous as possible for the Western troops.

How successful this Iraqi approach will be remains to be seen. Such is the US’s superiority in weaponry, particularly in air power, that the unexpected Iraqi resistance may prove short-lived. However, already, a week into the war, the fact that the Iraqis are putting up such spirited and unexpected resistance is a blow to American and British prestige.

At the same time, the longer the Iraqis resist, the more strained the US/UK position is likely to get. Meanwhile, the longer the Iraqi regime resists, the more likely it is that other groups of Iraqis will do the same, even if they do not support the regime. And the longer it takes the US/UK to defeat Iraq, and the more damage they inflict in the process, the more people around the world are going to come out against what most of them already recognise as an unjust and aggressive war.

Although Western countries have in recent years been notoriously averse to taking casualties, the Western elites must know that the sort of empire they envisage cannot be built without committing troops and taking losses. For them, a first, successful ground campaign, with no more than an acceptably low number of losses, was essential for shaping public opinion for future campaigns.

As losses mount, however— by the end of the first week of the war, the US and UK had admitted to having lost about 50 soldiers, more wounded and several captured by the Iraqis—American and British public opinion is liable to change radically, despite the nationalistic jingoism being encouraged by George W. Bush and other leaders. In the long run, this may prove be the greatest achievement of a people determined to resist Western imperialism for as long as possible.

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