WASHINGTON—While American military planners have concentrated since the Persian Gulf War on making more and better use of high technology, their Iraqi counterparts appear to have been taking lessons from every battle the United States, Great Britain and Israel have either lost or failed to win.
Unable to compete with American technology, firepower and intelligence-gathering, U.S. officials say, Saddam Hussein's commanders have turned to Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and Northern Ireland for inspiration, and also borrowed one idea from Yugoslavia's losing battles against NATO forces in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Senior U.S. officials believe the resulting Iraqi strategy, an ever-shifting mixture of suicide bombing, guerrilla warfare, deception and concealment, is designed to slow the U.S. and British advance on Baghdad, rattle green American troops, create as many civilian casualties as possible, frustrate coalition efforts to win Iraqi hearts and minds, encourage international opposition to the war and preserve Saddam's best fighting forces for as long as possible.
"It's a textbook example of how a weak state can try to fight a stronger one," one senior U.S. official said Saturday. "There's nothing new in what they've been doing, but they've recycled a lot of stuff from all sorts of conflicts."
If there's a central organizing principle to the Iraqi strategy, it appears to have been drawn from Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia: If you can inflict enough American casualties and make enough Americans think they've lost the moral high ground, you can lose the battles but win the war.
Iraq's aim appears to include killing Americans, displaying corpses and captives on television for shock value and making the most of the small number of civilian casualties so far.
Like the North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong and the militants of the Irish Republican Army, Iraqi fedayeen paramilitaries, probably supported by some experienced Republican Guard soldiers, have been ambushing American supply convoys and rear areas. Typically, U.S. officers in the field say, the Iraqis wait for a convoy to pass and then attack its tail end.
On Saturday, the Iraqis added suicide bombing to the familiar guerrilla manual. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah used truck bombs to drive first the Americans and then the Israelis out of Lebanon, and Iraqi officials said the first such attack wouldn't be the last.
That threat may be a combination of bravado and psychological warfare, but the use of suicide bombing has several advantages for the Iraqis.
_It makes it impossible for U.S. and British troops to distinguish combatants from civilians, which means they may kill more civilians, which in turn angers Iraqis who might otherwise turn against Saddam. Such killings energize Arab and Muslim opposition to the war, repulse Americans and anger the rest of the world. The use of children, women and parents as suicide bombers heightens the shock value, and there's no way to tell when it's over whether the bomber was motivated by love for Saddam or a gun at his children's heads.
_Suicide attacks wear down the mostly young American soldiers, most of whom have never been in combat before, by keeping them constantly on edge.
_Finally, by embracing a tactic pioneered by Muslim radicals, suicide bombers create the impression that Saddam, a secular ruler, is allied with Osama bin Laden and others in a Muslim holy war against Christians and Jews.
(EDITORS: END OPTIONAL TRIM)
"Any method that stops or kills the enemy will be used," Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said Saturday, adopting the language of Islamic radicalism. "The United States will turn the whole world into martyrs against it."
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they also thought the Iraqi tactics, drawn in part from Vietnam, were designed to keep the Americans and British as far from the Iraqi people as possible and to prevent them from delivering humanitarian aid, as the Iraqis have tried to do by mining the southern port of Umm Qasr.
"The idea is to make us appear to be the enemy of the people we're there to help," said one administration official. "It had some success in South Vietnam."
(EDITORS: END OPTIONAL TRIM)
Iraqi tactics in the southern city of Basra, and probably Saddam's plan for Baghdad, as well, suggest that the Iraqis also studied the American retreat from Somalia. Their conclusion appears to have been that if you draw the Americans and the British into narrow city streets where tanks, artillery and air power are of less use, you give them two unpalatable choices: Fight house-to-house, take a large number of casualties and lose public support; or level the city and lose public support.
Finally, like the Yugoslavs, the Iraqis seem to be trying to preserve their best forces, the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, for last by moving and concealing them. Despite three months of NATO air attacks, the Yugoslavs managed to protect more than 90 percent of their army.
Iraq's concealment also is a lesson from the 1991 war, when thousands of its troops were killed as they congregated in the open desert.
It isn't clear, however, whether the Iraqis read all the way to the end of the Yugoslav textbook. The Yugoslavs lost, and many of their leaders are now on trial, accused of war crimes.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.