Blood, oil, and water. Despite all the high-tech weaponry and computer-assisted wizardry of the U.S. Central Command, viewed from ground-level, Operation Iraqi Freedom looked considerably more elemental: Blood flowed. Oil burned. And water became the focus of modern warfare, the difference between life and death in the parched southern desert.
As the war in Iraq reached the end of Week 2, coalition forces were regrouped and resupplied, and ready to advance inside what war planners call the "red zone"-after a remarkably quick push through 300 miles of hostile terrain. But even as the front held, the rear presented a host of unexpected problems. Civilians in the south, mostly Shiite villagers, proved restive. After getting burned in a failed uprising during the first Gulf War, they were wary of supporting American troops this time around. A lack of humanitarian aid didn't help: Land mines, bureaucratic snafus, and ongoing firefights slowed crucial supplies of food and water, and that fueled local mistrust of Americans who'd hoped to be seen as liberators.
Then there were the military problems. Long supply lines from the Kuwaiti border made a tempting target for Saddam's forces, and Iraqi guerrilla units in southern cities managed to pin down American manpower needed at the front. A suicide bombing rattled nerves among coalition troops, and officials in Baghdad promised further acts of terror. In the heightened state of alert that ensued, a vanload of Iraqi women and children was shot and killed by jittery American soldiers, further straining relations with the civilian population. After 12 days, 8,000 precision-guided bombs, and untold bullets and mortars, coalition forces still could not claim complete control of a single Iraqi city between Baghdad and Kuwait.
The surprisingly tough resistance in the south gave rise to some not-so-surprising criticism at home. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld found himself on the defensive, countering unnamed sources in reports that he had vetoed his field commanders' initial requests for additional soldiers. Both Mr. Rumsfeld in Washington and Gen. Tommy Franks in Qatar didn't shrink from the questions and were stout in insisting that the war was going according to plan; their openness stood in contrast to the daily propaganda briefings from Saddam's information minister and an extraordinary interview on Iraqi TV by Western journalist Peter Arnett, who called the American war blueprint a "failure" (see article on page 21). He was quickly sacked by his bosses at NBC and National Geographic, an unlamented loss in a war that seemed certain to produce many more noble casualties in the days ahead.
It wasn't only the bad guys raising questions, however. Going strictly by the map, critics pointed to seven days of fighting that produced little new real estate for coalition forces, until April 1, when they surrounded and sealed off the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the last major population center before Baghdad itself. On the same day they secured a key dam that could have been used to flood the approach to the capital, as well as an important bridge over the Tigris River, near the city of Kut. Military officials indicated that the campaign for Baghdad had begun.
Still, the lull that led up to the new advance gave critics-including some on the right-an opening to question the Pentagon's war strategy. William S. Lind of the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington characterized the battle plan as "a campaign that looks like a balloon on a string, with a single Army division (about 3,500 combat troops) deep in Iraq and a slender thread of a supply line connecting it to its food, water, fuel, and ammunition.... No classical strategist can see the picture without his hair standing on end."
A calmer evaluation comes from Dan Henk, a professor at the U.S. Air War College. The strategy pits "the traditional military experts, who say in order to win this war you have to have certain kinds of elements in place, traditional warfighting elements ... against the new philosophy, which says that technology has so enhanced our skills that you don't have to have all the traditional elements in place [because you can call them in at a moment's notice]. That is the Rumsfeldian view," he said. "We won't know which is the right answer until this is over."
Mr. Henk told WORLD: "I caution you to be very careful of criticism at this point. I may believe that we have gone in too light in some ways. I think we should have had more on the ground. But our ability to adjust is great and that is always happening; we should not second-guess."
Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, the American brass would have none of the second-guessing by cable-news generals and beltway critics. Gen. Franks insisted he had never implored the Pentagon for more troops, and he said the lack of new deployment orders coming out of Washington proved that the original manpower estimates were still on track.
Gen. Franks, the operational commander for the Iraqi theater, also denied that he'd wanted to delay the invasion following the setback in Turkey, only to be overridden by Mr. Rumsfeld. "In fact," he said, "no one has driven the timing of this operation except the operational commander." He said the quick march toward Baghdad was never designed to take the capital immediately but rather to secure the southern oil fields that will be critical to rebuilding the country after the war.
In that regard, the plan has met with nearly unmitigated success. Only a handful of oil wells were burning in southern Iraq, in contrast to the widespread fires left by retreating forces in the first Gulf War. With the deserts firmly under coalition control, firefighters from Texas and Oklahoma were already on hand to battle the isolated blazes.
Success in the desert has had other benefits, as well. The air-raid sirens that constantly pierced the skies over Kuwait City at the start of the war have now gone largely silent, thanks to special operations teams that cleared the desert of mobile missile launchers. With the exception of a weekend missile strike on a popular shopping mall in Kuwait, only one missile was launched toward that border country in recent days, and it was intercepted by an American Patriot. In the western desert, meanwhile, U.S. troops have destroyed Scud missile launchers, helping to put Israel largely beyond the reach of an Iraqi attack.
If the deserts are practically owned by coalition forces, the skies are even more so. Coalition aircraft have flown some 15,000 sorties since March 20 with hardly a murmur from Iraqi air defenses, which were decimated in the first Gulf War. Nightly raids against Baghdad continued in Week 2, including a strike on the national Olympic headquarters, which was said by Iraqi dissidents to house a torture chamber run by Saddam's son, Uday.
Increasingly, however, the coalition turned its airpower on targets outside the capital, softening up Republican Guard positions with precision bombing campaigns. The "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne began their attacks on March 28, hitting Republican Guard positions near the city of Karbala, just to the south of Baghdad. By the end of the weekend, U.S. military officials estimated the air attacks had destroyed perhaps 50 percent of the Guard's vaunted Medina Division.
On March 31, coalition soldiers faced their first serious ground battle with Republican Guard forces near the city of Hindiyah, the site of a key bridge over the Euphrates River. The presence of a Guard unit so far from Baghdad smacked of desperation to some American military planners, while others said it might indicate Saddam had died or evacuated the capital, leaving his elite troops without a leader. Following a pre-dawn firefight, the Republican Guard fell back, and American troops stormed into the city, where they found tons of ammunition and hundreds of weapons, including several boxes of American grenades marked "Property of the Ministry of Defence of Jordan."
If recent history is any indicator, however, the quick initial battle for Hindiyah won't be the end of the violence there. Throughout the short war, Iraqi troops have given up the cities they defended, while members of the Baath Party militia and Fedayeen guerrillas continued the battle. From Basrah to Najaf, coalition forces have been repeatedly harassed by paramilitary fighters in towns they'd hoped would long since have fallen quiet.
More than a week after first approaching Basrah, for instance, British troops were still encamped outside the teeming city 350 miles south of Baghdad, while Baath Party loyalists terrorized the largely Shiite population inside. Refugees told of military checkpoints and house-to-house searches. They said Saddam's secret police were rounding up potential enemies and threatening the families of those who would desert.
According to Gen. Franks, at least four additional southern cities-Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, Najaf, and As Samawah-are under the control of loyalist militias. "They have put themselves in a position to be able to terrorize the Iraqis in these villages and in these cities and to be able to move out along the lines of communication to attempt to interdict our supplies," the general said.
The local militias are more than just a distraction or a drain on manpower. On March 29, an Iraqi soldier posing as a taxi driver stopped at a military checkpoint outside the city of Najaf. As soldiers approached the taxi, the driver detonated a car bomb, killing himself and four Americans. Two days later, with tensions still running high, a Toyota van approached another Najaf checkpoint and failed to slow down. After warning shots fired into the air went unheeded, American soldiers opened fire on the vehicle, killing at least seven women and children.
Such incidents are sure to further strain relations with the very civilians that the Pentagon hopes to recruit as allies. Torn between fear and hope, most Iraqis so far have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the war effort. Converting them to the American side could make short work of the southern campaign. In Basrah, for instance, just 100 or so Baath militia fighters are estimated to control a city of 1.5 million. The Shiite majority in Basrah could easily crush their oppressors, but history has taught them to beware of American promises. Food aid would help win them over, but it's been slow to arrive (see article on p. 20).
Still, recent signs have been encouraging. In Nasiriyah, where American forces have been hampered for days by heavy enemy fire, civilians were helping to root out militia forces loyal to Saddam. Just outside the town, about 100 local tribal members fought alongside U.S. Marines and helped to clear a bridge that had been booby-trapped with explosives. To the west, after fighting for two days to enter the city of Diwaniyah, American troops found residents eager to point them toward the Baath Party headquarters and a military compound.
Local residents even played a key role in the most touching story of the war so far, the daring rescue of 19-year-old POW Jessica Lynch, who was listed as missing for more than a week after her unit was captured near Nasiriyah. In a daring night raid on April 1, U.S. special forces rescued the wounded American from the hospital where she was being held. (They also recovered 11 bodies, some believed to be American.) Friendly Iraqis not only directed the troops to the hospital, they even revealed the exact room in which Miss Lynch was imprisoned.
Efforts in the north show how important such local cooperation can be. Thousands of U.S. paratroopers have landed in the Kurdish-controlled territory, hoping to open a crucial second front in the battle for Baghdad. Fighting alongside U.S. special forces, Kurdish guerrillas helped to capture a huge terrorist training camp belonging to Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group that has been linked to Osama bin Laden. According to the Pentagon, the camp was probably the source of the ricin poison exported for terrorist attacks in London, and among the records found there were the names of suspected Iraqi terrorists living in America.
With American troop strength growing in the north, the regime could soon find itself squeezed between two advancing armies. That would be the best possible news for American soldiers in the south, tired of being the only ones having to look over their shoulders.