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A Battle Plan Ambushed?

Strategy of bypassing strongholds in the south in the race to Baghdad brings second-guessing.

March 25, 2003|Richard T. Cooper and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As U.S. armored columns drive single-mindedly toward Baghdad, deliberately bypassing Basra and other cities in southern Iraq, they are taking a calculated risk.

The downside of the strategy is apparent: Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary fighters are finding it easier to attack U.S.-led forces bringing up the rear and their thinly protected supply trains. But the Pentagon maintains that it's all part of the plan.

Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur's "island hopping" in the South Pacific during World War II, commanders chose to open the invasion of Iraq by sidestepping potentially bloody, time-consuming battles to occupy Basra, Nasiriyah and other population centers in southern Iraq -- areas they considered strategically peripheral.

Instead they focused on their central goal: getting their most powerful forces -- hundreds of Abrams M1 tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters -- to the gates of Baghdad in record time.

The gamble was that enemy forces would not be able to mount significant attacks along the coalition's stretched-out supply lines or otherwise divert attention from the campaign to the north. U.S. and British forces rolling in behind the heavy armor that led the assault would mop up what initially seemed to be scant resistance.

But recent developments have cast a pall over the early successes.

Casualties have mounted in rear areas that U.S. forces had swept through virtually unopposed. Reports of Iraqi commanders surrendering whole units and enemy soldiers melting away have been replaced by accounts of deadly ambushes, helicopters falling to earth and American POWs being paraded on Iraqi television.

The abrupt surge in bad news has given rise to questions:

Has the U.S. battle plan come unraveled? Was it misconceived from the start?

If Saddam Hussein has forces in southern Iraq capable of bloodying coalition units, why were they not engaged and destroyed at the outset?

At the least, the recent spike in fighting allowed Baghdad for the first time to claim a measure of success, and thus strike at the aura of invincibility and inevitability that U.S. planners had sought to create.

Monday morning, when Army Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, briefed reporters at his headquarters in Doha, Qatar, a reporter from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates confronted him:

"In the beginning of the war, so-called coalition forces claimed taking full control of Umm al Qasr, then Nasiriyah, and yesterday Basra; and apparently, it seems now, it's not correct," the reporter declared.

"Are you practicing a strategy of lies and deception, or have you just been trapped by Iraqi army?"

The answer, Franks and many outside military analysts insist, is that recent resistance was expected, will be dealt with and will be a small price to pay for the benefits of the determined thrust toward Baghdad.

Problems have loomed large only because the first days made the war look too easy, military officials say.

"As you know, our forces have been moving rapidly. We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen," Franks said Monday, referring to a combination of regular Iraqi army troops and paramilitary groups loyal to Hussein.

"We know that the Fedayeen has in fact put himself in a position to mill about, to create difficulties in rear areas, and I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected," Franks said.

Even so, some observers suggest that war planners are making a mistake by not focusing more on securing key sites in southern Iraq. They point out that it increases the vulnerability of the 300-mile-long supply line on which the two forward units -- the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- must now rely.

What's more, stiff Iraqi opposition in the port town of Umm al Qasr has blocked the movement of food, water and other humanitarian aid to an increasingly desperate civilian population. The longer it takes to begin this distribution, some say, the greater the dangers of political instability. Even as Iraqis in the south continue to wave at U.S. and British troops, a growing number are seething with anger as they struggle for basic necessities. In Basra, the country's second-largest city, water has been cut off.

"I'm looking to see what happens in the south," said Andrew Brooks, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "If they can't control Basra easily, then what does that say about Baghdad?"

But the strategy for the war, including the decision to bypass population centers in the south, reflects a set of military and political conclusions reached by U.S. planners months before the invasion began:

First, U.S. and British forces had to deal such heavy blows to Iraqi forces in the opening days of the invasion that regular army units and perhaps even a portion of the more disciplined Republican Guard would realize the futility of resistance.

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