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Iraq: U.S., Britain Upbeat On War Progress Despite Setbacks

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. and British officials have been giving positive assessments of the progress of their military campaign against Iraq.

That's despite a number of setbacks over the weekend that saw the allies' casualty toll rise, as Iraqi forces continue to put up stiff resistance in a number of cities and Britain reported its first combat death. The Iraqis also said yesterday they captured two Apache helicopters and may put the pilots on television, just as they showed five U.S. captives yesterday.

But U.S. General Tommy Franks, the commander of the coalition forces, said yesterday they're making "rapid" progress inside Iraq. "Major [coalition] land combat formations continue to move as you have seen them move over the last three or four days. Progress toward our objectives has been rapid and, in some cases, dramatic," Franks said.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair listed the progress that he said coalition forces have made and said their goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. "That we will encounter more difficulties and anxious moments in the days ahead is certain. But no less certain -- indeed, more so -- is coalition victory," Blair said.

By contrast, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appeared on state television yesterday predicting victory for Iraq. His statement, which included references to events over the past several days, appeared to refute coalition hopes that the Iraqi leader had been killed or injured in the initial U.S. attacks on 21 March.

"Each time the enemies are defeated at the hands of your heroic ground forces, they will increase their bombing on you. Persevere, for your stature in the eyes of God is large, God willing. The result of your patience will be victory," Hussein said.

Observers say the rapid push toward Baghdad carries some risks to coalition forces -- by forging ahead and bypassing towns or Iraqi troop formations, the allies are leaving themselves exposed.

In the last couple of days there has been fierce fighting near Nasirya and Basra and there's ongoing resistance at Umm Qasr -- a town coalition forces said they'd secured days earlier. And the appearance of Iraqi fighters near the Rumaila oil fields turned it from a "secure" to an "unsafe" area yesterday.

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel experienced firsthand the security vacuum left following the rapid advance. Over the weekend he crossed the Kuwaiti border into the Iraqi village of Safwan in the wake of invading coalition troops -- then had to evacuate because of warnings of an imminent attack.

Recknagel reported: "On returning to Safwan early this morning, reporters learned that the area remained insecure and [we] decided to return, en masse, to Kuwait until conditions improve. The events underline the fact that as coalition forces advance rapidly north toward Baghdad, they are securing highways for military supply transports, but not establishing their authority in the towns along the way.

"People in Safwan told us earlier that Iraqi police left the town, along with government officials, when U.S. troops attacked from Kuwait four days ago, and that no new local authority has been established to fill the security vacuum caused by their flight. At the same time, access to major cities such as Basra and the port of Umm Qasr continues to be blocked as allied forces encounter pockets of resistance.

"Journalists' access to cities further north is hindered by bands of armed civilians, spotted near roadways, whose identity and allegiances are unknown."

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon yesterday acknowledged the risks involved in the swift push toward Baghdad: "It is not simply the front lines that are vulnerable, which might have been the traditional way of viewing risk in this kind of conflict, where there is such a fast-moving advance. As we have seen, there are risks that those behind the front line will face and certainly we need to adjust our force protection to take account of those risks and to take account of the way in which the enemy is operating."

Military analyst Tim Garden told RFE/RL this strategy leaves allied forces exposed, as they have fairly small number of troops deployed in a large country. "We're talking about maybe half of the size of the ground troops that were used in the last Gulf War. The problem is that you get an extended line of communication from Kuwait, as the only point of entry up towards Baghdad. The troops you leave behind on the way are predominantly the support troops, the ones who are bringing the logistics up who are not heavily defended and if you haven't cleared the cities on the way you don't know what you've left behind in the cities and you may get Iraqi-type special forces coming and attacking your more vulnerable troops in the rear and also cutting off supply lines," Gardner said.

Garden said Iraqi resistance in places such as Umm Qasr doesn't bode well for the upcoming battle for Baghdad -- or Basra, a crucial point for bringing in humanitarian aid, and itself on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. "Before the Baghdad problem they've got the Basra problem and it looks as though the stay-behind forces there are significant and already they're having to use artillery, allied artillery against the forces in Basra. That will cause many more civilian casualties than the sort of precision attacks we've been talking about before. Artillery is a slightly imprecise way of bringing force to bear, so you can see [as] you go further north the resistance gets stronger and the numbers of forces in towns perhaps gets stronger," he said.

Iraqi officials said yesterday U.S.-led forces have killed 62 people in the last day and injured 400.

Analyst Philip Mitchell of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said the U.S.-led campaign is still on course to topple Saddam's regime -- despite the setbacks. "I think that a few weeks is the more likely target rather than, as had been said by some people, a matter of days. I don't think it ever was going to be a matter of days, particularly given that the Iraqis this time are fighting on and in their own country so there's far more to fight for, far more to fight for than there ever was in the campaign of 1991," Mitchell said.

In another development yesterday, Blair said any Turkish incursion into northern Iraq would be "unacceptable." There have been conflicting reports of whether Turkish troops have already crossed the border.