WASHINGTON -- This war in its early stages recalls the pitched battles and bloody skirmishes of the Vietnam War more than the high-tech wizardry that highlighted the first Persian Gulf war a dozen years ago.
As it has unfolded so far, the war also bears scant resemblance to the conflict Pentagon planners had led the nation to believe it could expect -- one in which a stunning display of air power -- "shock and awe" -- would leave Saddam Hussein and his leadership cadre cowering, if not dead, in subterranean bunkers, his troops surrendering and joyous Iraqis welcoming their liberators.
Instead, there has been fierce resistance, highlighted by an effective if brutal use of paramilitary forces that have bloodied American soldiers and Marines and their British allies.
The big picture still seems to promise victory for the U.S.-led coalition because the vast war machine of the United States assures it control of the air, from which Iraqi forces can slowly but surely be degraded, and because of highly trained and well-equipped ground troops preparing to take them on.
Still, the steadily increasing attacks on the center of Baghdad to eliminate leadership facilities and air defenses, as well as Republican Guard units deployed in civilian neighborhoods, make it more likely over the coming days that an increasing number of civilians will die.
U.S. officials had hoped to keep civilian losses to a minimum, though that might be impossible as American forces approach the fortified capital city.
"We have an obligation to protect the forces we send into combat," said one senior officer. "You're going to have to make some hard decisions. I think you could see more civilian casualties. That's clear as you get closer to Baghdad."
That could be more than a humanitarian problem. Should more civilians die in attacks on the city's air defenses and the Republican Guard, it could harden attitudes within the population, provoking enraged civilians to fight alongside Hussein's soldiers, said Harlan Ullman, a Vietnam veteran and defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"There are some real risks there," said Ullman. Moreover, "if there's a blood bath in Baghdad, American opinion's going to be real divided."
U.S. forces that punched out of Kuwait and raced toward Baghdad have stretched their supply lines to 250 miles.
Now, they must take time to consolidate their positions on the outskirts of the city and await such critical items as food, ammunition, water and fuel.
And they must protect their supply lines from attack by Iraqi militia and paramilitary forces by diverting combat forces to secure the lines. Stateside troops, such as the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, La., are being rushed to the war zone to help in that effort.
The wild card in the fight so far has been Iraqi paramilitary forces, notably the fedayeen, a brutal though seemingly skilled force of up to 60,000 irregular troops fanatically committed to Hussein. Some of the more aggressive and battle-tested fedayeen units are operating in southern Iraq, where they have spent years putting down anti-Hussein insurrections.
They appear to have taken a page from another battle on this same ground during World War I, when Turkish troops attacked overextended British supply lines stretching from Basra to Al Kut, leading to the defeat of the British force.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called the fedayeen "death squads" and denounced their tactics, which he said included cutting out the tongue of an Iraqi civilian and letting him bleed to death in public view.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, briefing reporters in Doha, Qatar, went the defense secretary one better Friday, calling the irregulars "terrorist death squads."
Few doubt their description of the fedayeen, but name-calling and detailing a bill of particulars ignore their impact on the battlefield, which has been considerable.
The fedayeen might, in fact, be a major reason why Iraqi civilians in southern cities have not risen up against Hussein or welcomed U.S. and British troops. The New York Times quoted an American officer as saying that a woman in Basra was hanged after she waved to British troops, an episode Rumsfeld cited Friday.
Two months ago, a Sun reporter traveled to Germany to observe war games for the Iraqi campaign. During interviews with Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, ground commander of Army forces in the Persian Gulf, and other senior officers, the words "fedayeen" or "irregulars" were never uttered.
Late last week, though, it was clear these irregular forces were on the general's mind.
"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces," he told reporters for The Times and The Washington Post. "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight."
He also responded, when asked whether the war was likely to last longer than some planners had forecast, "It's beginning to look that way."
Compare the general's comments with the remarks of Vice President Dick Cheney two Sundays ago on NBC's Meet the Press, just days before the first aerial bombardment was unleashed on Baghdad.
Asked by interviewer Tim Russert whether he believed the American people were prepared for "a long, costly and bloody battle," Cheney replied:
"I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe we will be greeted as liberators. ... The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that."
If the ferocity of the Iraqi irregulars has caught the U.S. military by surprise, a force that might be primed to fight to the death awaits American forces in a defensive perimeter around Baghdad: six divisions of well-trained Republican Guard troops, some tank-equipped, and the 20,000-man Special Republican Guard, which is said to be fiercely loyal to Hussein.
Moreover, thousands of fedayeen and other irregular security forces are positioned to defend the capital.
Less than two weeks into the fighting, the war plan has drawn sharp criticism from unlikely quarters -- active-duty and retired senior military officers who wear the battle stars of past campaigns.
The major criticism, voiced most prominently by retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the first gulf war, relates to the size and makeup of the ground forces. Rumsfeld, after first seeking an attack force of 70,000 to 80,000, eventually agreed to a much larger force of 250,000 to 300,000. But then he tinkered with the flow of forces arriving in the region.
As the fighting began, only one armored division was on the ground, although at least two were said to be needed, McCaffrey said, along with an armored regiment that still sits in Colorado. Critics also said there was insufficient heavy artillery.
Some defense officials say superior U.S. and British air power can fill in for the lack of ground troops and destroy the Republican Guard.
But retired and active-duty officers say that Rumsfeld and his aides have been too enamored of the promise of air power and its precision ordnance, and too critical of what they see as a hidebound Army that favors large numbers of forces on the ground.
And those critics also say that because of the fedayeen, some of those precious troops are having to be diverted to protect the lightly defended supply lines.
"What shock and awe stirred up, teeth and claws will kill," said one retired Army officer. The Army and Marines on the ground will now have to finish the job, he said.
Sticking to their guns
Rumsfeld and other top Pentagon leaders are not backing away from their strategy. "I stand by this plan," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday. "I think it's a brilliant plan."
No doubt criticism will fade quickly if the U.S.-led coalition achieves its aims in a reasonably contained time period.
Even so, there's little about this war to date that resembles the one fought by a vast U.S.-led coalition on much the same soil in 1991. That began with a 38-day bombing campaign. After that, the ground war was launched. It lasted 96 hours.
This time, ground forces of a far more narrow coalition--Americans, the British and a small contingent of Australians -- were committed two days after the first bombs fell. And their task is far more difficult, evicting Hussein from Baghdad, rather than his troops from Kuwait.
Echoes of Vietnam are invariably detected whenever the United States embarks on a course that involves the use of military force. Certainly this war has a long way to go before it can be credibly compared with that long-ago conflict. For one thing -- and it's a big thing -- Vietnam claimed upward of 58,000 American lives. At week's end, the death toll in Iraq stood at 36. Even so, a few similarities seem worth noting.
In March 1965, American military units landed in what was then South Vietnam. "Welcome to the Gallant Marines" read the signs that greeted the troops as they rolled ashore unopposed near the city of Danang.
Ten years later, in April 1975, the American mission to that distant battleground ended in failure. In between, some accounts from the field and from the home front mirrored events today.
The fedayeen, for example, are displaying the same passion and brutality as the Viet Cong did some three decades ago, although clearly not in the same numbers. Call them terrorists or death squads or irregulars. Whatever their crimes, they are also engaging in combat activities that fall under the rubric of guerrilla tactics.
Ullman, the defense analyst, for one, likened the fedayeen to the Viet Cong.
As the Vietnam War dragged on, a vast anti-war movement took hold in this country, driving one president, Lyndon B. Johnson, out of office and influencing another, Richard M. Nixon, to severely scale back and eventually withdraw U.S. combat forces.
This time, an anti-war movement with global dimensions, not yet overwhelmingly large but hardly insignificant, had materialized before this war even began. Sizable anti-war demonstrations have been seen in New York, Washington, San Francisco and other American cities, as well as abroad.
Vietnam was the first war upon which television had an impact. Graphic visual dispatches from the battlefield, many suggesting that the war was not going well, arrived each night on the evening news. Vietnam became known as "the living-room war."
Iraq is the in-your-face war, as three homegrown cable networks, augmented by foreign partners, are providing often gripping around-the-clock coverage while the traditional over-the-air networks have devoted lengthy parts of their broadcast day to the war.
In the process, we have seen battles up close, devastated families mourning the death or capture of a son or daughter, frazzled troops getting their first taste of combat, acts of kindness amid chaos, portions of a city ablaze. And the images never stop.
"For some, the massive TV, the massive volume of television -- and it is massive -- and the breathless reports can seem to be somewhat disorienting," Rumsfeld said Friday.
But Wallace has not swerved from the goal he outlined in February, as he sat in his command tent in the snowy German countryside, testing elements of the war plan that would be implemented little more than a month later.
"We may win pretty, or we may win ugly," he said, "but we're going to win."
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun