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Iraq: U.S. Overwhelmed Saddam's Army But Struggles With Insurgency (Part 1)

The U.S.-led coalition can look back with satisfaction at the ease with which it overwhelmed Saddam Hussein's forces in the first weeks of the Iraq war. But things have not gone so smoothly since. In the first of a four-part series on the first anniversary of the start of the war (20 March 2003), RFE/RL reports that coalition troops continue to have difficulties suppressing a postwar insurgency launched by Hussein loyalists and Islamic extremist groups.

Prague, 18 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Iraq war began one year ago (around 4 a.m. Prague time on 20 March) with a statement from U.S. President George W. Bush.

"On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign," Bush said.

The "opening stages" Bush referred to were massive bombings of targets in Baghdad and elsewhere that comprised the communications and security infrastructure of Hussein's regime. Waves of explosions in Baghdad lit up the night sky and sent shock waves reverberating across the city.

Hussein and his officials responded with defiant public statements. As the bombing began, Iraq's then ambassador to Moscow, Abbas Khalaf, promised that the war would be no "walk in the park" for the Americans. Speaking in Russian, Khalaf said: "I can assure the Americans that this [war] won't be a walk in the park, dear Yankees. I can say they can't begin their land operations in the coming days for a number of reasons. At the top of the list is that they well know that this [campaign] will be a real meat grinder."

"The U.S. troops went in with combat in mind. For the U.S. troops, there was never any thought that there would be peacekeeping or a peace-enforcement phase. That was never planned for, and, indeed, I don't think any of the U.S. troops involved in the whole operation had any experience or training in that type of operation."
But, in fact, the Iraq war proved to be one of the fastest victories in U.S. military history. U.S. armored columns stunned the Iraqi forces by racing for Baghdad at top speed. The strategy isolated large Iraqi units, further breaking down the regime's ability to command and control its troops. Simultaneously, the Americans and British used their overwhelming superiority of firepower to destroy resistance at long range, often before Iraqi soldiers were close enough to engage them.

Phillip Mitchell is a former British officer and military expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He says most Iraqi troops felt little loyalty to Hussein and quickly saw the hopelessness of fighting. Whole units spontaneously disbanded as soldiers changed their uniforms for civilian clothes and left the combat theater.

"The Republican Guard did [put up some fight], but the overwhelming number of troops were the conscripts, who had very little loyalty, certainly, to Saddam Hussein. They had been given very little in terms of training, equipment, and wages were poor. They themselves saw the elite receiving all the goodies while they received absolutely nothing. When push came to shove, they knew where their best interests lay, and it certainly wasn't in opposing the allies," Mitchell said.

By 9 April, just three weeks after Bush announced the start of the war, U.S. forces were in Baghdad, and regime leaders were in hiding. On 1 May, the U.S. president announced that major combat operations had ended across the country. But if invading Iraq and toppling Hussein's widely unpopular regime was easy, occupying the country proved more complicated.

The some 200,000 U.S. and British soldiers who took part in the war were ill-prepared for the breakdown of civil order that attended their advance. Iraqi police abandoned their posts out of fear of popular reprisals, and mobs of looters took to the streets of numerous towns and cities.

The lawlessness shocked many Iraqis, as did the slowness of the coalition troops to contain it and to restore key utilities. That gave Hussein loyalists their first opportunity to claim that life was better under the defeated regime. The loyalists initiated a guerrilla war against the occupation, and the fight quickly attracted foreign-led Islamist groups intent on waging "holy war" against the United States.

The U.S. Army's 3rd Division, which took Baghdad, has since conducted an internal review of why the occupation got off to such a difficult start. The report says Washington's political decision to call U.S. troops "liberators" rather than "occupying forces" left many of the division's officers uncertain of their legal authority to clamp down on civil disorder.

The report says: "Because of the refusal to acknowledge occupier status, commanders did not initially take measures available to occupying powers, such as imposing curfews, directing civilians to return to work, and controlling the local governments and populace. The failure to act after we displaced the regime created a power vacuum, which others immediately tried to fill."

Military expert Mitchell put the situation this way: "The U.S. troops went in with combat in mind. For the U.S. troops, there was never any thought that there would be peacekeeping or a peace-enforcement phase. That was never planned for, and, indeed, I don't think any of the U.S. troops involved in the whole operation had any experience or training in that type of operation."

The massive looting ended several days after it broke out, but reconstruction efforts continue to be hampered by the pilfering of parts from public utilities. At the same time, insurgents have proved able not only to slow reconstruction by sabotage but also to routinely attack coalition troops.

Some 665 coalition troops have died in combat or accidents in Iraq in the past year -- almost 75 percent of them since Bush declared the end of major combat 10 months ago.

Some 12,000 to 16,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians are estimated to have died in the war and its aftermath, with deaths today increasingly the result of insurgent attacks on civilians. The bloodiest single day of attacks against Iraqis was this month's bombings of Shi'a believers celebrating the holy day of Ashura that killed some 180 people. U.S. and Iraqi officials attribute the attack to a radical Islamist group trying to spark sectarian strife in hopes of making the occupation untenable.

Analysts say the coalition's strategy for quelling the insurgency now rests on speeding up the formation of Iraqi police and other security forces, while increasingly withdrawing foreign forces from towns and cities. That strategy aims at reducing tensions with local populations as Iraq moves towards forming its first post-Hussein sovereign government by 30 June.

Mitchell says the strategy is making headway as the new Iraqi security forces build on their ties within the community to develop intelligence about insurgents and to make arrests. But he says the continuing guerrilla and terrorist attacks show there is still "a long way to go" before Iraq's security situation stabilizes fully.

"We are seeing the U.S. troops moving out of the main cities and towns, and that's going to be [a] gradual process, [with] the Iraqis taking over security within these cities and towns. Perhaps through that, the U.S. can build up its intelligence effort. And I think we are seeing that effort being successful in the amount of both weapons which are being found and the arrests that have been made. But there is still a long way to go."

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