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WAR WITH IRAQ / HOW, AND HOW LONG

The 'Whens?' of War Blow Up a Storm

Gulf commander's lone comment about an underestimated enemy and the time needed to defeat it prompts White House to defend plans.

March 29, 2003|Richard T. Cooper and Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With a single comment made while visiting hard-pressed U.S. troops in central Iraq, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of all Army forces in the Persian Gulf, has forced into the open a question his superiors have been trying to sidestep since the war began: How long will it last?

"The enemy we're fighting is different from the enemy we war-gamed against because of these paramilitary forces. We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight," Wallace said Thursday during a visit to a command post of the 101st Airborne Division.

Did that mean the war would run longer than expected?

"It's beginning to look that way," he said.

As reports of Wallace's comments spread through Washington on Friday, the White House moved quickly to scotch any suggestion that the Pentagon's battle plan may be in trouble and that the war may thus run longer than expected.

"The president has faith in the plan. He believes that the plan is on track, it is on progress, it is working," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Meantime, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out that the plan had been vetted by an array of senior U.S. commanders.

"Overall, our plans are on track," Myers said.

In other circumstances, a perhaps overly candid assessment by one general might have passed unnoticed. But Wallace's comments hit like a thunderclap because they spoke volumes about the tensions simmering beneath the surface of the war in Iraq.

In part, the tensions arise from the strains of a 72-hour period during which the coalition suddenly seemed to have stumbled into a briar patch of troubles. Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters kept up bloody raids on lengthening allied supply lines. Iraqi troops refused to crumble. The Army's tank-killing Apache helicopters were turned back by low-tech ground fire. And Saddam Hussein remained in power.

The flare-up over Wallace's frankness brought to the surface the lingering unease among some U.S. officers and outside analysts over the fact that civilian leaders in the Pentagon sent U.S. forces into Iraq with a substantially smaller force than military planners originally envisioned.

And the pell-mell advance of coalition forces -- about 300 miles in less than a week -- has stretched supply lines and support systems far beyond anything logistics officers normally train for.

"This is a very bold, audacious plan, but it is poorly resourced," said a former field commander in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "They need operational depth and they don't have it."

Yet despite such tensions, both senior Army officers and many outside analysts say the paramilitary attacks and other challenges are relatively minor when compared with what has been achieved. And many predict that, weather permitting, it may take no more than another month to destroy Hussein's Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and other organized military forces.

"Three or four weeks, if we have to take the city down," said Andrew Berdy, a retired Army colonel who commanded U.S. troops around Nasiriyah in 1991, referring to the possibility that the final push may require a direct assault on Baghdad.

Hussein's organized forces may be overcome more quickly, Berdy said, if they remain arrayed as they are now, miles outside the capital.

"The question is whether we can isolate the Republican Guard outside the city. I hope we can," he said, "because as soon as they move and are out in the open, we can nail them."

"There is still a lot of combat power in the region that has not yet engaged with Iraqi combat forces," agreed Richard Hart Sinnreich, former director of the Army School of Advanced Military Studies.

He noted that the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division has seen intensive action along the route leading north from Kuwait through Nasiriyah and other cities in central Iraq. But the 7th Cavalry constitutes a relatively small part of the division's total combat punch, he added.

The great bulk of the 3rd Infantry's tanks and other heavy forces has moved to within 50 miles of Baghdad without serious opposition.

Although attacks by Fedayeen and some units of the regular Iraqi army have inflicted casualties and forced adjustments by U.S. commanders, Sinnreich said, in military terms "they are pinpricks."

Hussein's defensive strategy, however, has caused problems for allied commanders and prompted them to shift their own tactics.

"There is no question they didn't anticipate the Fedayeen," said William M. Arkin, a military analyst at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, "or that they overestimated 'shock and awe' and the degree to which coalition forces would be welcomed as liberators."

Still, the goal was to get to the outskirts of Baghdad quickly, he added, and that was accomplished in one week. "My guess is three weeks," he said of the time it will take to crush Hussein's organized forces.

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