Two weeks into the war in Iraq, some senior military commanders are beginning to admit that American understanding of the Arab world is limited and that they still have to convince the Iraqis that they are liberators, not occupiers.
In one of the most low-key assessments of the war so far, a high-ranking American officer said it would be "unrealistic" to expect Baghdad to fall within days.
"There is a big cultural difference between the US and the Arab world. That makes it hard," said the highly experienced officer, who has been closely involved in the planning of the war.
"We Americans are not very good at judging what a totalitarian regime is like, looks like and acts like. There is an information psychology front that we are trying to push but we are probably not as sophisticated about it as we would want to be."
The officer described the Iraqi regime as "resilient" but said it relied on immense pressure to maintain loyalty. Iraqis would turn against their government "sooner or later", he said.
In a rare departure from the intense campaign run by the Pentagon and Central Command in Qatar to present the motives for war in the best light, he accepted that many Iraqis were still not convinced that the US and British forces on the ground were coming as liberators.
"Are we getting the message across to the educated people? We are. But to the people that want to be moved by emotion and believe that there are no good motives and think that the US are here for oil and only for oil we have got to get the message across better," he said.
He compared the Iraqis living under Saddam Hussein's regime to the Germans in the 1930s living under Adolf Hitler and said that in both countries the extent of repression and a sense of nationalism both severely limited resistance. "The system of control, the system of oppression, the system of nationalistic symbolism prevents them from taking out the leadership," he said.
Intercepts of communications between Republican Guard units have indicated they are being weakened by the intensive ground and air assault. But the regime was not about to collapse, the officer said. "You immediately come to the conclusion that you have immediately got to push on this house of cards and it will immediately come down. That is simply not true.
"If you have an unrealistic expectation that Baghdad is going to fall in three days I might describe it as wrong."
Many analysts expected the Shias in the south of Iraq in particular to welcome the arrival of British and American forces because of the persecution they have suffered at the hands of the regime. But the south has provided some of the stiffest resistance of the war so far.
The officer admitted one reason was the British and American military's failure to back the uprising after the 1991 Gulf War. "We let them down in 1991," the officer said. "When you let someone down once you don't want to let them down twice."
He said that the Iraqis operated a "very powerful enforcement and repression system" that discouraged the Shias from rising up and that many had fresh memories of the brutality with which the 1991 uprising was crushed. "The average Iraqi only knows Saddam and Saddam has won the lottery every time. Until we prove that he is not going to be a survivor some people are not going to believe it," he said.
The officer also appeared to distance himself from the increasingly critical vocabulary used by generals giving the daily briefings at Central Command, who have begun to label Iraqi paramilitaries as "terrorist death squads".
"We have to watch about falling into the trap of a certain type of language that describes things," he said.
He said the decision to rush armored forces north towards Baghdad in the first hours of the ground invasion was an example of commanders taking one of the "windows of opportunity" sometimes presented during a war. "You will have to let historians judge how all that worked out. It was an attempt to take advantage of a very interesting window of opportunity that opened up. I salute the man that took it."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003