The Abrams M1A1 tank is a magnificent instrument of war. It can move faster across country (more than 40mph) and shoot farther (almost two miles) than any tank ever built. In the first gulf war, its score card against Russian-built Iraqi tanks was, approximately measured, 1,245 to zero. But like a great mythic warrior, the Abrams has an Achilles' heel. It can be killed from behind by a well-placed antitank missile aimed at a small chink in its armor.
So far in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the American military has lost two Abrams tanks. The first M1s ever destroyed by enemy fire in battle, they were caught in an ambush of the U.S. Army's 3/7 Cavalry near As Samawah, on the west bank of the Euphrates River. Two is not a large number, and the Coalition forces have at least 650 tanks in Iraq with more on the way. But U.S. officials are worried about the skill or at least the fanaticism of the guerrilla fighters who sneaked up on the tanks driving a "technical," a jeep, under cover of a sandstorm. More worrisome are the type and the source of the weapon apparently employed, a Russian-made Kornet antitank missile.
The Iraqis have secretly bought as many as a thousand of these lightweight, very powerful, easy-to-use weapons. The sellers, according to Pentagon officials, are Ukrainian arms dealers (who reportedly sent Baghdad some 500 Kornets in January) and possibly some entrepreneurial Syrian generals or the Syrian government itself. Last week Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointedly warned the Syrians to stop shipping military equipment, like night-vision goggles, to the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Syrian government, Rumsfeld said, would be held "accountable."
Less than two weeks into the second gulf war, does Operation Iraqi Freedom risk blowing up into a Middle East war? That scenario, once very remote, is no longer unthinkable. Some neoconservative hawks might even wish a wider war ("On to Damascus!"); more-restrained Bush administration officials dread an inflamed "Arab Street" turning on its pro-U.S. governments--a conflagration that could force regime change in, say, Amman, Jordan, before Baghdad. Barring a sudden collapse of the Baathist regime--still a possibility, senior administration officials insist--the war in Iraq is about to get bloodier. Saddam's regime is doomed, almost certainly. But at what cost?
Somewhere deep in his network of tunnels and bunkers, Saddam "is convinced he can win," says a top U.S. official. Not by defeating superior American forces on the battlefield, but merely by surviving while Islamic rage builds from Cairo to Islamabad. Saddam was no doubt heartened when a blast ripped through a crowded Shiite marketplace in Baghdad on Friday, killing 58 people and creating bloody images, including a severed head, for the cameras of the ubiquitous Arab cable-TV network, Al-Jazeera. The Iraqis blamed an American bomb; the Americans couldn't explain the explosion, except to note that Saddam is not above slaughtering his own people and pointing to the infidels. Then on Saturday, the first suicide bomber struck, blowing up four GIs who made the mistake of approaching an idling taxicab in the town of Najaf. Suicide attacks would be "routine military policy," announced Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan. "You'll hear more pleasant news later."
With a show of "shock and awe," American might was supposed to overwhelm the Iraqis and crack Saddam's regime. Tipped off by a spy in Saddam's inner circle, the U.S. military tried to kill Saddam and his wicked sons as they slept with a surprise "decapitation" strike on the first night of the war. U.S. officials were engaged in delicate secret talks with some of Saddam's henchmen to sell out the dictator in order to save their own skins. Those talks appear to have gone nowhere. Saddam is almost surely alive; the spy, according to a knowledgeable source, has been "compromised," meaning that he is probably dead.
Bush administration and military officials insisted that Operation Iraqi Freedom was still "on plan." They pointed out that Coalition forces had seized the rich oilfields of southern Iraq before Saddam could torch more than a few wells; that Coalition forces, in a remarkable feat of arms, had driven some 300 miles into Iraq in less than a week; that U.S. Special Operations Forces were scoring successes in the western --desert and northern mountains. Pentagon officials hinted that a decisive battle to crush Saddam's Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad was coming soon. The woeful TV chorus of pundits and retired generals lamenting the unexpectedly slow progress of the war was "silly," said President George W. Bush.
Determined to show that President Bush is not "micromanaging" the war like LBJ in Vietnam, his aides pictured the commander in chief as lofty and resolute. When he's presented with a list of possible targets, his general reaction, says one adviser, is, "I don't know why you are bringing this to me." Bush insisted that he would not "second-guess" his ground commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. And how long would the war last? "However long as it takes," Bush replied. "It isn't a matter of timetable, it's a matter of victory. And the Iraqi people have got to know that, see?" said the president, sounding less like Winston Churchill than Jimmy Cagney.
If the president seemed a little testy and defensive at times, the press was also guilty of what Rumsfeld described as "mood swings." Pentagon officials noted that during the Afghanistan war in the fall of 2001, the pundits began predicting a "quagmire"--right before the Taliban broke and Al Qaeda fled for the hills. The gloomy press accounts did nothing to shake public support. According to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, 58 percent of U.S. adults say they would support a military action that lasts for a year or more, and an additional 13 percent would back a war lasting several more months. Three out of four said that the U.S. war plan was well thought out.
Still, the second-guessers included some very high-ranking generals. "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we war-gamed against," said Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the Army's ground commander in Iraq. Because of the fierceness of the resistance and overextended supply lines, the war is going to take longer than predicted, Wallace told reporters. Wallace has a reputation for shooting off his mouth; also, for speaking plainly.
His remarks brought to a boil long-simmering tensions in the Pentagon over the best way to defeat Saddam. The classic American way, favored by most Army generals, is to grind down the enemy with overwhelming firepower. Rumsfeld, however, prodded the war planners for more creative approaches, taking advantage of high technology and using surprise and agility. The result was a compromise: most generals wanted to send at least four armored divisions after Saddam; the plan worked out by Rumsfeld and Franks called for three, the Army's Third and Fourth Mechanized Divisions and the Marines' First Expeditionary Division, with the 101st Air Assault Division for mobility. The Fourth Infantry Division got hung up when the Turks balked at allowing American forces to use their bases. It is only now arriving at ports in Kuwait.
In Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion force (which includes some 45,000 British soldiers) would not need to slowly take and hold ground on the way to Baghdad. Better not to kill a lot of civilians and flatten Iraq just to rebuild it. Rather, the plan called for the fast-moving armored divisions to sweep past cities in the south. The populace, mostly Shiites who hate Saddam and his Sunni Baathist Party thugs, would throw flowers at the Americans and/or rise against their oppressors.
When, instead, GIs began dying in ambushes from Iraqis pretending to surrender, it didn't take long for Washington officialdom to start leaking exculpatory memo-randa. One CIA report made available to NEWSWEEK was titled "Iraq: Potential Risks in Rear Areas." The paper warned of Saddam loyalists attacking American supply lines with "hit and run tactics" using "RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and small arms." The document was widely distributed at the Pentagon, though one intelligence official acknowledged that, given Washington's strange hothouse ways, the paper might have been more carefully read at the top if it had been stamped top secret instead of merely secret.
The Saddam Fedayeen ("Martyrs of Saddam," whom CENTCOM's PR officers prefer to call "death squads") are right out of an Islamic version of "The Sopranos." Recruited from Iraqi jails, their duties have included pulling women off the street to be raped by Saddam's son Uday and cutting the tongues out of Iraqi citizens deemed to be disloyal. Little wonder that few people have thronged the streets to cheer their Western liberators. According to CENTCOM briefers, a woman who had been waving a white flag and warning U.S. troops of dangerous areas was later found hanging from a lamppost. In the besieged city of Basra, Saddam's enforcers opened fire on about a thousand citizens who were fleeing the city, possibly to look for food and water.
Saddam apparently prepared for the American invasion "by watching 'Black Hawk Down'," says former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. "And I mean literally." Saddam's irregulars have adopted tricks from the Somali guerrillas who killed 18 GIs in the battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, including firing from behind groups of women and children. Some of their borrowed tactics have been less effective. Attacking a Bradley fighting vehicle or an Abrams tank with machine guns and RPGs mounted on Jeeps and SUVs is, generally speaking, a suicide mission.
Saddam's military successes can be overstated. At the outset of the invasion, the motto of the Marines was "one more day closer to home," says a senior administration official. After a few casualties from ambushes and fake surrenders, "you have a bunch of really pissed-off Marines," says this official. Breathless press reports of intense fire fights notwithstanding, casualties remain low, certainly given the scale of the operation and measured against historic norms. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but it appears that after nine days of combat perhaps 18 U.S. soldiers had been killed by enemy fire (friendly fire claimed 2 more and 11 died in accidents; 7 are prisoners of war, and 15 are missing). World War II claimed 297 American lives a day, or 12 an hour.
Saddam will try to increase the American death rate, possibly by ordering his commanders to use bio-chem weapons. The Butcher of Baghdad is said to believe that Americans have a low tolerance for casualties. It is true that the Clinton administration pulled out of Somalia after taking casualties in the battle of Mogadishu, and that in 1999 the United States fought a war in Kosovo (mostly waged by pilots flying no lower than 15,000 feet) without losing any lives. Senior military officers understand--ably do not like to risk their men. But there is considerable research to show that the American people have a fairly high tolerance for casualties in war--as long as the war ends in a clear victory.
The decisive step toward victory in Iraq, say military officials, will be to crush Saddam's elite Republican Guard. At least three Guard divisions are massed outside Baghdad, facing the American invaders. In '91, the Americans used air power and their superior armor to badly maul some of these same Republican Guard divisions. But it is often overlooked that several of the Guard battalions stood and fought and then made an orderly retreat, living to fight again another day. This time, the Iraqi armored divisions will be fighting on more-favorable terrain: not desert tabletop, where they are exposed, but hidden under trees, alongside farmhouses--and mosques, schools and hospitals in the Euphrates River Valley. The Medina Division may choose to hole up in Karbala, a city with ancient Islamic religious significance.
Once more studying "Black Hawk Down," the Iraqis drove off an initial attack by Apache helicopters last week. As the American choppers zoomed in, Iraqi militiamen called ahead, house to house, by mobile phone. The hail of small-arms fire from rooftops shot up some 30 Apaches and brought down one. Learning from the ambush, the 101st Airborne used different tactics, including diversionary feints and better use of air support, to stage a raid by about 40 Apaches on the Medina Division later in the week. Fewer choppers took fire; on the other hand, the results--at most four Iraqi tanks destroyed--were not overwhelming.
The Third Infantry Division, one spearhead on the multiprong drive to Baghdad, paused for a few days last week to let its supply line catch up. Food and water ran low at times; some troops were reportedly on reduced rations. (The supply requirements of the Coalition forces are vast: 15 million gallons of gasoline a day and 26 Olympic-size swimming pools of water.) Sheer exhaustion wore down troops who were on the move for three days straight, then hunkered down through sandstorms and harassing enemy attacks. The sandstorm, packing 50-mile-an-hour winds, slowed the air onslaught for a couple of days. But now Air Force, Navy and Marine carrier jets are working over the Republican Guard divisions outside Baghdad, seeking to "degrade" their combat capability by at least 50 percent.
It is troubling to note that in Gulf War I, Operation Desert Storm set the same goal of degrading the Republican Guard divisions by 50 percent--and fell far short. Over 43 days of the war, some 5,600 sorties were flown against some 1,522 tanks. Analysts later concluded that only about one quarter was destroyed. This time around, the Americans have more-precise weapons, but heavily armored tanks, dispersed, disguised and well protected in earth berms, are simply hard to kill.
CENTCOM commanders are now looking for the right moment to strike the Republican Guard, weighing the relative strengths of the facing armies. "They're looking for harmonic convergence," said one Pentagon official. But they cannot wait too long. There is a risk that the Republican Guard will slip back into Baghdad so that Saddam can wage a massive street brawl against the invaders.
Already awaiting the Americans inside the capital city are Saddam's Special Re--publican Guard, about 30,000 troops, and his praetorian guard, the 5,000-man Special Security Organization. Many of these men are what Rumsfeld calls "deadenders."
Still, the risks of urban warfare have been somewhat exaggerated, says Brookings's Pollack. An expert on the Iraqi military (and an author of the CIA's study of the 1991 war), Pollack estimates that the Americans could lose hundreds--but not thousands--of men in Baghdad. It is true that street fighting cuts down on the Americans' technological edge. It is harder for American forces to stand off and fire radar- or GPS-guided precision weapons. Low-flying helicopters are vulnerable to RPGs, as "Black Hawk Down" vividly demonstrated. But the Ameri-cans have studied earlier urban bloodbaths and learned from the mistakes of others, like the Russians who rushed into snipers' nests and cross-fires in the Che-chen capital of Grozny. The Americans are likely to be more deliberate, moving sector by sector, seeking to identify and destroy "critical nodes," like headquarters units. Baghdad is a mostly Shiite city. The CENTCOM planners are hoping that the Shiite locals will turn on the Sunni oppressors. Of course, that was the hope in Basra, too, and so far British forces--well trained in urban warfare from Northern Ireland--have been unable to gain control of Iraq's largest southern city (Basra's population is 1 million; Baghdad's is 5 million).
The biggest risk in urban fighting is that civilian casualties are likely to spike up in the Battle for Baghdad. The Americans have gone to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of Iraqi citizens. Some air-power advocates grumble that the initial phases of the shock-and-awe campaign went too easy on the Iraqi capital. Unlike the air raids in the first gulf war, Operation Iraqi Freedom did not turn off the lights and water in Baghdad or blow the bridges. Iraqi state-run TV stayed on the air. The hope was that a new Iraqi government would announce the demise of the old after a few days of bombing. Instead, a growing parade of Baathist officials took to the airwaves to rally the troops.
In the air war against Saddam, targets are picked to minimize what is euphemistically called "collateral damage." Precision weapons can now be aimed in ways to make a wall fall one way, but not another (or to hit a target under a bridge without taking out the bridge). Air-war planners have a computer program they have nicknamed "Bug Splat," which allows them to measure the precise impact of bombs.
Even so, protecting the lives of American soldiers fighting street to street may call for unpleasant trade-offs: loosening the rules of engagement to allow soldiers to shoot first and ask questions later, while picking bombing targets with fewer scruples about who might be inside. The longer this goes on, the more ugly footage for Arab TV, the more anger in the Arab Street.
Last Wednesday, CIA officials gave a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill about the rising tide of anti-Americanism sweeping the Arab world. Particular emphasis was placed on Jordan and Egypt. As agency officials discussed the depth of hatred for U.S. actions, the senators fell silent. There were delicate discussions about the uncertainty, if the war was protracted, of "regime stability." After the briefing, "there were senators who were ashen-faced," said one staff member. "They were absolutely depressed." Much of what the agency briefed would not have been news to any close watcher of the BBC or almost any foreign news broadcast. "But they [the senators] only watch American TV," said the staffer. Most of the senators had been led to believe that the war would be quick and that the Iraqi populace would be dancing in the streets. It is hard to know the true level of discontent in the Arab world, and whether it can turn into revolution. But an extended and increasingly bloody Iraqi war is a risky way to find out.