Paul Vallely, The Independent
LONDON, 30 March 2003 - It was the day the war changed gear. As the Iraqis preened themselves on the success of their strategy to date, Washington and London tacitly acknowledged it was time for a rethink. They had tried it the easy way but Donald Rumsfeld's business-school approach of War Lite, with just-in-time levels of troops and supplies had failed. It was time to do it the old-fashioned, hard way and bring in the heavies. The invaders, it seemed yesterday, were taking a deep breath as the realization dawned.
For a while, the old and the new approaches are operating in tandem. On Friday night, Tony Blair was at the United nations in New York for talks with the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, on the role of the UN in a post-war Iraq. Later the French, in an apparent thawing of cross-Channel relations, put their names with the British to a draft Security Council resolution to restart the oil-for-food program in Iraq - and transfer control of it from Saddam Hussein to Kofi Annan. The Security Council unanimously passed the measure last night.
But developments on the battlefield have lessened the urgency of Blair's bid to bind diplomatic wounds by bringing the UN on board with post-war reconstruction. Post-war anything seemed further away than ever before.
The day before, the US president and British prime minister, in a joint press conference after their Camp David summit, seemed determined to send out a tough message to those guilty of Week One wobbles. The coalition will fight for "however long it takes", the president said. But, as Day Nine progressed, it became clear that the anxieties that this war could last for months, and be bloodier than public opinion was led to expect, were not without foundation.
Bombing had been heavy on the Iraqi capital on Friday night, as on nights previously. But a change had occurred. The night had been among the most violent of the war so far. The most powerful weapons used to date - two 4,700lb satellite-guided "bunker-busting" bombs - had been dropped. Their target was "a major communication center and command-and-control facility" on the east bank of the Tigris River. It was a telephone exchange in a main shopping area. And it was the first time that the Anglo-American forces have deliberately chosen a target which is an important part of the civilian infrastructure.
Two other early developments highlighted the parallel progress of the old and new approaches. Just after dawn the British ship Sir Galahad began its slow approach to the southern port of Umm Qasr behind a navy mine-hunter along a channel 50 miles long but only 200 meters wide. The route had been swept by teams of mine sweepers, some working with dolphins. Its captain said he had emptied the fuel tanks in the bows, just in case. It eventually docked at midday, almost a week after anticipated in the first optimistic days of the war. But the 600 tons of food and water which was unloaded as humanitarian aid is, according to aid workers, going to prove difficult to distribute thanks to the lack of security even in the far south of the country where the invaders have spent days trying to dislodge Iraqi troops. The forces, there and further north, were hoping that, with the sandstorms gone, they might be able to regain the initiative. As the troops moved in, US Marines reported that they had captured an Iraqi general in Nassiriyah on Thursday, after bursting into his home - where they also found documents and a safe.
But for all that, journalists "embedded" with various units, there and elsewhere, began reporting that the level and intensity of resistance from Iraqi regular troops, and most particularly from the Fedayeen paramilitaries, had been dispiriting. "From talking to quite a few Marines here," reported one BBC correspondent, "they are admitting that the way this conflict has been going has worn them down. It wasn't the kind of fighting they were expecting, and it has affected morale."
Another journalist reported the frustration of US Marines that "every time they engage Iraqi units they often find these Iraqi units just change into civilian clothes and then melt away. And then next thing they know (they) are being hit from behind by...guerrilla fighters." These are not isolated incidents.
In comments said to have caused unease in the Pentagon, the US Army's senior ground commander in Iraq, Gen. William Wallace, told The Washington Post: "The enemy we're fighting is different from the one we'd war-gamed against. We knew they were there (the paramilitaries) but we didn't know they would fight like this". And the general warned that long supply lines and Iraqi guerrilla-style tactics had reduced the chances for the swift war that military planners had hoped for.
In response, Pentagon officials announced that 120,000 reinforcements are being summoned to assist the 90,000 US-led troops now inside Iraq. But they insisted the deployments - which will take place "over the next few weeks" - have been planned for some time, many of them having originally been earmarked for an assault from the north through Turkey, until the anti-war Turkish government scuppered the plan.
The Iraqi air base at Talil, outside Nassiriyah, which was captured in the first 36 hours of the campaign, was opened after work on the runway to take large US transport planes. The first landed in what will be a significant help to the logistic chain to get fuel, food and ammunition to troops nearer Baghdad. The key task of the new troops will be to defend that supply chain.
But further evidence of the need for the military rethink came on Friday in Basra. Initial hopes of US-British troops being met by crowds of liberated cheering Iraqis have now evaporated. The problem does not necessarily lie in the disposition of the ordinary people - that will remain unknown until the apparatus of Saddam's state repression has been lifted. What is hampering things is the extent to which Baath Party apparatus is still effectively in place.
Some 2,000 civilians tried to break out of Basra, to flee through US-British lines. About half of them made it across a bridge out of the strategic town. But then Iraqi militia opened fire using machine guns and mortars to force them back into the city. The Black Watch Battalion, part of the British force which has been encircling Basra for five days, fired on the militia. Attempts to get British military ambulances through to injured civilians were unsuccessful. Failed attempts like this do not augur well for the possibility of uprisings against Saddam by ordinary Iraqis elsewhere, particularly not in Baghdad where his systems of internal control are strongest - in evidence of which Saddam's television station paraded three Iraqi men arrested on suspicion of spying for the US.
The capital provides another potentially more serious problem. Top Iraqi officials in Baghdad acknowledged, without apparent perturbation, that they expected US-led forces, who have been within 60 miles of the outskirts for some time, to surround the city within five to 10 days. Their intention, said the defense minister, Sultan Hashem Ahmed, was that the invaders will have to fight their way in street by street. "The enemy must come inside Baghdad and that will be its grave," he said.
Iraqi officials warned that hundreds of thousands of Baghdad citizens would be armed and would engage in hand-to-hand conflict. Their hope is that bloody images of dead soldiers which - together with footage of the innocent victims of stray Western bombs - will turn opinion violently against the war and create the political pressure which would halt it.
Tony Blair faced more immediate domestic political problems. The row rumbled on over his statement at the Camp David press conference that the two British soldiers whose bodies had been shown on Al-Jazeera television had, in fact, been executed. The men's families were outraged and complained that they had been told by the army that their loved ones had been killed instantly in battle. Staff Sgt. Simon Cullingworth, 36, and Sapper Luke Allsopp, 24, had gone missing when caught in enemy fire near Zubayr.
"We can't understand why people are lying about what happened," said Sapper Allsopp's sister, Nina. Government spokesmen made various statements through the day before admitting that Blair's unequivocal statement had been based on conjecture. "Our assessment of the information available to us indicates that the soldiers in question may well have been executed. That is borne from the facts that the bodies lay some distance from the vehicle in which they were traveling, and they were without their issued protective equipment," a Downing Street spokesman said. The Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram later expressed regret for any hurt the prime minister's words had caused. The veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell accused the prime minister of talking "gibberish" and the shadow chancellor, Michael Howard, warned the government not to blame the cost of war for any bad news it announces in the budget on April 9. On top of which came the prospect of more embarrassing questions as first reports came in of another fatal "friendly fire" incident involving two Scimitar vehicles being attacked from the air by A-10 tank-buster missiles somewhere near Basra.
All of this uncertainty was seized upon by opponents of war. Russian President Vladimir Putin called for an immediate end to the war. "The war is in danger of rocking global stability and the foundations of international law," he said. "The only correct solution...is the immediate end to military activity and resumption of a political settlement in the UN Security Council."
Other members of the anti-war alliance may have been preoccupied with other matters. Refugees fleeing war-torn Iraq should stay in neighboring countries instead of coming to Europe, German Interior Minister Otto Schily said at an EU justice and interior ministers' meeting in northern Greece. The French, meanwhile were fending off questions about the entente not-so-cordiale: in London Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, when asked by reporters if he hoped Anglo-American forces would win, replied: "I am not going to answer. You have not been listening carefully to what I said before."
But across the Arab world, anti-US and anti-British demonstrations broke out after Friday prayers. Effigies of President Bush were burned, along with the American, British and Israeli flags. Tens of thousands protested in Egypt, Jordan and Tehran where windows were broken and red paint thrown at the British Embassy. In Bahrain it was the third successive day of angry demonstrations. And a new type of talk was heard abroad - about how the faltering of the attacks might mean they were not necessarily going to win. Perhaps it would end in a deal or a UN cease-fire - a prospect which Donald Rumsfeld in Washington scathingly dismissed. "There isn't going to be a cease-fire," he said.
But what was clear to everyone as Day Nine drew to a close was that the original notions of "shock and awe" has not produced the swift results which briefers had led the American and British people to expect. A serious re-examination of tactics is under way.