The Beginning Of The End

The images were remarkable. Iraqi men trying to pull down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein with a rope, then beating at it with mallets. When the effigy finally toppled, they pelted it with rocks. Elsewhere in the heart of Baghdad, Iraqis shredded a poster of their leader. But does this mean the war is over? BUSH ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS are trying to keep expectations in perspective. U.S. forces are said to control just 10 to 20 percent of the capital and Vice President Dick Cheney has warned that fierce fighting lies ahead. NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz spoke to intelligence and defense-strategy expert Richard K. Betts--a member of the National Commission on Terrorism and a political science professor at Columbia University--about the latest developments in Baghdad. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is this the end of the war?

Richard K. Betts: It depends on how you define the end. Probably of organized serious resistance by the Iraqi government, yes. But that doesn't mean that isolated pockets of resistance by loyal units elsewhere in the country or in Tikrit might not continue for some time, or that there might not be some sporadic guerrilla activity. But it appears that a functioning Iraqi government has gone.

Has the vaunted Republican Guard that was supposed to defend the city given up?

It sounds like it. If the Republican Guard headquarters are empty, probably most of the Republican Guards see the handwriting on the wall--they realize the Americans are going all the way and there's nothing left to do but put on women's clothes and run for the exits.

Could they have deployed to somewhere like Saddam's hometown of Tikrit so they can attack later?

Certainly elements of Republican Guard units--perhaps even large ones--may still be in Baghdad and functioning or may have gone elsewhere. We can't tell that. But it sounds like a collection of uncoordinated and fairly small elements of the old regime.

Did you expect them to capitulate Baghdad this quickly?

It doesn't surprise me--and it wouldn't have surprised me if they hadn't. There are so many uncertainties in war, and I think our knowledge of Iraq is so limited that it's really impossible to predict.

Does it suggest that Saddam Hussein is dead?

I don't know.

If he's still alive, is there anywhere that he or his followers could still go?

The place that's most often mentioned is Tikrit, the heart of his clan and where people most loyal to him are. But that's also where we have concentrated our surveillance and our attention. Theoretically, if he could escape and was not detected getting out of Baghdad, he could go to any number of places, but it's hard to imagine that he could last long there. He doesn't have that many friends, and he can't do much unless he starts issuing orders. If he does that, we'll know where he is, and we'll get him.

British and American troops have used different tactics to take urban territory. The British are said to have drawn on their Northern Ireland experience to move into Basra very slowly as they cultivated contacts in the city. U.S. soldiers, by contrast, almost seem to have stormed into Baghdad.

The Americans didn't really storm into Baghdad in a thorough fashion. They mounted raids with the apparent aim of demoralizing the remnants of the regime and making clear to the population, "the Americans are here," thereby hopefully prompting this kind of disintegration. Perhaps that has worked. But they were careful not to mount a full-scale assault for fear that before organized resistance collapsed it could have been a much more costly and bloody affair.

Is what we're seeing today the consequence of good military tactics or just that Saddam Hussein's forces weren't prepared to fight?

I don't think we can ever know. Different people decide to give up at different times for different combinations of reasons. It could be all of the above. If Saddam is dead or is not able to communicate and his lieutenants don't know whether he's alive or dead, and they see the American tanks coming around the corner, they have to make up their own minds about the best solution for them personally. So it's a collection of personal decisions in a situation of great chaos and uncertainty.

On Saturday the U.S. troops probed Baghdad by driving a convoy close to the center of town and firing at vehicles that tried to approach. Was that a good way to start the demoralization process?

Sure. Once you see that American forces in large numbers are in your capital city, then the Iraqi government's claims that they're going to throw the Americans back look quite hollow. You don't need the Americans to be sitting on every single intersection to make a calculation that Saddam's forces are not going to be able to keep control.

Presumably terror attacks are much more likely now that American forces are going to be moving around the city?

That's always a threat, either from loyalists of the regime or from the reportedly significant numbers of Arab zealots who have come in to fight for the cause. That certainly remains a possibility, not only in the final days of the war, but in the aftermath of the war. This could be an aftermath that's punctuated with little outbursts of terrorism or guerrilla raids or other small but continuing outbreaks of violence.

How much damage could they do?

Anywhere from negligible to moderate. It's not likely that they're going to be able to mount anything like a reborn war effort on a large scale, but they can kill isolated soldiers and they can maybe blow up something here and there. It would be mainly symbolic actions that are not likely to make a real dent in the occupation.

So while this isn't the end, it's the beginning of the end?

It looks like it. In war one can never predict. We've had wild mood swings over the last three weeks. The first two days everybody thought it would be a cakewalk. The next week, everybody thought it was going to be another Vietnam. Now they're saying it's a brilliant war plan. It's not satisfying to journalists, but to really know we have to wait and see.

Has it been a good war plan?

Is the glass half full or half empty? The outcome was never in doubt. It was a question of how long it would take and at what cost. I don't think there's been anything gained from having started with a smaller force on the ground than the original Army planners wanted. It did not turn into a disaster in the sense that the force was so weak that it could not move on and get to Baghdad expeditiously, but it ran into problems that were harder to handle than if we'd started with the five to six divisions originally recommended instead of the three to four divisions that [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld finally approved. On the other hand, the advance went very quickly and the casualties on our side have been light, so operationally it's hard to quarrel with the result.