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Iraq: British Defense Analyst Says Iraq War Is A Classic Case Of The Unpredictability Of Military Operations

It has been a week since the start of the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq. Charles Heyman, a leading British defense analyst and editor of "Jane's World Armies," spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten today about some of the difficulties being encountered by the coalition.

Prague, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hindsight is always perfect, but with that in mind, RFE/RL spoke to leading British military analyst Charles Heyman to get his assessment of how the campaign in Iraq is going. Heyman was specifically asked to reflect on some of the successes -- and miscalculations -- that have marked operations so far.

RFE/RL: If you had to characterize the military campaign so far, one week into operations in Iraq, what would you say?

Heyman: There's a terrible unpredictability to military operations. What the politicians are saying before a campaign generally doesn't pan out that way once a campaign starts. This whole thing now is a classic case of the unpredictability of military operations.

RFE/RL: Some people say coalition forces should have conducted a long bombing campaign to "soften" Iraqi military resistance before ground forces were sent into Iraq. Do you agree?

Heyman: It's very difficult to make an assessment of whether a long bombing campaign would have been useful or not. My own gut feeling is that in this case, a long bombing campaign would probably have stiffened resolve and hardened resistance inside Iraq because that's by and large the history of long bombing campaigns. Now, Kuwait in 1991 was a totally, totally different scenario from the one we have here. At the end of the day, we have an invasion force moving into a country.

RFE/RL: Given that this is, as you phrase it, an "invasion force" moving into Iraq, did the British and Americans miscalculate the level of armed opposition they would encounter as they made their way north toward Baghdad?

Heyman: They underestimated dramatically the amount of resistance from, first of all, the Iraqi military forces, and also the population in the areas through which they're passing. At the moment, we have an allied column to the west of the Euphrates that's got as far as Karbala, which has a very long supply line into Kuwait -- 200 miles [320 kilometers] or so. And we have another allied column, going up through a central axis, through Nasiriyah. That also has a long supply line into Kuwait. And the resistance in the rear areas is beginning to threaten those supply lines. I wouldn't say it's destroying the logistic support or anything like that, but it's making things much, much more difficult.

RFE/RL: How would you characterize the military situation on the ground today?

Heyman: One thing you can say, right at this moment, is that the coalition appears to have lost a bit of momentum. Certainly the forces that have got as far as Najaf and Karbala -- they're about 50 or 60 miles [85 to 100 kilometers] away from Baghdad. But they're on the western side of the Euphrates, and they've got to get across the Euphrates. And they haven't actually moved from those positions now for about 48 hours. And similarly, the force that's trying to push north from Nasiriyah towards Al-Kut has basically been in around the same area for the last 48 hours as well. So, I think, certainly, that in the initial phase of the campaign, the coalition forces moved much faster than they thought they would. What's happening now is that it's slowing down. And there appears to be increasing Iraqi resistance in front of them.

RFE/RL: If the clock could be wound back a week, what would your advice be to the British and American forces? Do coalition forces, in your opinion, have too few men and too little armor on the ground in Iraq?

Heyman: It might have been better for the coalition to have waited a little bit longer, to get the troops around from the Turkish area -- the 4th Infantry Division -- and also to wait for the 1st Cavalry Division coming in from the United States, which is actually moving now. They probably would then have had the overwhelming force that they needed to secure their rear areas effectively.

RFE/RL: As coalition forces surround the city of Basra, in the south, and draw nearer to the capital, Baghdad, is there still an expectation that the tide will turn thanks to a popular uprising, that is, if paramilitary troops loyal to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein can be sufficiently eliminated?

Heyman: Let's just say that the expectation of popular resistance, which the coalition planners had based their campaign on, has now probably turned to hope, and we need to see how the next week pans out before we can make a really sound decision on that premise. But I think they're hoping now, as opposed to expecting.

RFE/RL: And if no rebellions materialize? Will the troops have to battle their way into Baghdad despite all the analysts' warnings -- and what we have seen so far -- about the perils of urban warfare?

Heyman: It begins to look like that. But the generals in Qatar will not want to go into Baghdad -- there is no doubt about that whatsoever.

RFE/RL: So what is your prognosis?

Heyman: Basra is a city of around 1.5 million people. Watch the situation in Basra very carefully for the next week to 10 days or so. That will probably give us some indication of how the coalition will treat Baghdad, how it will operate in the Baghdad area.

RFE/RL: Lastly, both sides have accused the other of committing war crimes. How should we treat Iraqi claims that coalition forces are deliberately shelling civilian areas or American claims that regular Iraqi Army troops are being forced to fight against their will?

Heyman: Every single campaign I've ever covered has had a mass of propaganda from either side. The same sort of cries are made in every single campaign. I expect within about a week or so that we'll hear accusations from both sides that people are raping nuns in nunneries --- exactly the same propaganda that came out in September 1914. The important thing is to believe none of the propaganda. Use your common sense, have a look at what's happening on the ground, and treat every report that you can identify as propaganda with great skepticism.