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Complex Goals, Harder War

March 27, 2003

Six days into the second U.S. war with Iraq, the predictions of a "cakewalk" are gone, replaced by worried frowns. Most Iraqis have not stormed out of their homes to greet U.S. forces as liberators; regular Iraqi army units are resisting more than expected; vicious sandstorms slowed progress toward Baghdad to a crawl.

The initial euphoria was misplaced, but the pessimism that followed is at least premature. Though there is reason to question some tactics, the war is only 1 week old and relatively few coalition troops have been killed. The coalition understands now that it faces soldiers fighting for a homeland, even though it is one ruled by Saddam Hussein.

In the 1991 war, U.S.-led coalition airplanes bombed Iraq for more than a month, destroying much of the infrastructure. When ground troops landed in Kuwait, it took only 100 hours to repel the Iraqi invaders.

This time the U.S. goals go beyond ousting invaders. Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal told Pentagon reporters Wednesday that the first objective was to "overturn the regime," but later added, "We are there to liberate the people of Iraq." In the weeks leading up to the war, the Bush administration also included as an intent the finding and destroying of Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. Later came the goal of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East.

These different and much broader aims complicate the military's tasks. Troops have tried to spare power and water plants so they can be used in a post-Hussein Iraq. Bombing targets are chosen to minimize civilian casualties, even when Iraq puts military targets in residential areas and uses hospitals to bivouac soldiers. There is valid concern that pictures of dead civilians will further inflame opinion in the Arab world, where many already support Iraq.

The need to minimize destruction is not the only hindrance. Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq from Turkish territory has made it harder to get troops into Iraq and to supply them once there. Iraq is not faced with a second front. U.S. generals, rather than wait for troops blocked from Turkey to arrive in Kuwait with their equipment, launched the invasion without them. That may have been a mistake; some retired military officers criticized what they called a "desert light" campaign. But paratroopers landed in the north Wednesday, signaling more to come.

The Ankara government's recalcitrance makes it easier for the Bush administration to insist, as it has had to do daily, that Turkish soldiers stay on their side of the border and not cross into the Kurdish area of Iraq.

Political concerns, from saving cities to dealing fairly with the Kurds, do make it more difficult to accomplish military goals. But that's a far cry from turning a handful of fragmented battle reports into a declaration of military failure.

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