WASHINGTON—It's day 22 of the war. Some look at columns of American tanks rolling through the heart of Baghdad and are euphoric, seeing victory close at hand. Others look at the same scene and worry that an ugly battle for a huge city has just started.
The agility, ability and leadership of America's soldiers and Marines have enabled them to knife 350 miles through Iraq and straight into the heart of the enemy's capital in record time. They have been fighting and moving for 19 days with no replacements for their casualties and virtually no rest, but so far they have been flexible enough to deal with everything the Iraqis have thrown at them.
The destruction that Air Force, Navy and British warplanes have visited on the Iraqi forces has been no less awesome. Even when the Republican Guard's T-72 tanks never budged, their crews still died at the hands of tank-plinking aviators and sharp-eyed Abrams tank and Bradley gunners.
Up until now, America has fought its war, but now the Iraqis might try to fight theirs. It's not as if they have much choice. Their "elite Republican Guard" never came out of its holes to fight; their Air Force never flew a single mission; their tanks seldom rolled and whether they did or not, they died. All the Iraqis have left are thousands of rifle-toting irregulars, Fedayeen guerrillas and soldiers who have changed into civilian clothes.
If the Iraqis have any fight left, it will be what the Pentagon calls "asymmetric warfare," which is Pentagon-speak for how the weak fight the strong by avoiding the enemy's strengths and attacking its vulnerabilities. It's David versus Goliath, and in Baghdad, it's perhaps best defined by the snipers who U.S. troops say fired at them from the upper floors of the Meridien Palestine Hotel. An Abrams tank cranked up its 120 mm main gun and answered with a single high explosive round that ripped a huge chunk out of the hotel and killed two of the foreign reporters staying there.
The saddest indicator that the battle for Baghdad has begun is the rising toll of dead and wounded on both sides, especially those who simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
American and British casualties have risen to more than 100 killed and missing and more than double that number wounded. No one knows how many Iraqi soldiers and Fedayeen irregulars have died, but their corpses litter the roadsides from Basra to Baghdad and surely they number in the thousands. Civilian and military hospitals are overflowing with wounded civilians caught in the crossfire.
"The question is whether we are going to be viewed like the Russians going into Grozny in Chechnya," one retired U.S. general said. "The Iraqis are going to asymmetric warfare if we don't police them up fast. They may have already crossed over."
Old and New Baghdad are well-suited for snipers, ambushes, booby traps, human shields, car bombs, suicide attacks and other forms of asymmetric warfare. A sprawling mix of modern interconnected building complexes and ancient, narrow, twisting alleys, the city also boasts a labyrinth of underground tunnels that run for miles.
Close air support, artillery and tank guns are less effective and sometimes harmful in such densely populated areas, and especially in a war in which the allies want to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties, in a conflict in which the United States and Britain need to be seen as liberators, not as conquerors.
The question is whether Saddam Hussein's remaining defenders—with or without his leadership—can learn to fight smart before they run out of fighters. So far, the Iraqi irregulars and foreign volunteers have shown themselves to be better at dying than at killing. They have displayed no end of suicidal grit, charging Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
Some have strapped bombs and grenades to their bodies and tried to attack American checkpoints. Others have filled big tourist buses and tried to crash through barricades.
The fields of Iraq are dotted with their bloating corpses.
The longer this drags on, the worse it will be for the United States and Britain. Much of the Arab world is watching the Iraqi information minister give his whistling-through-the-graveyard news conferences, desperately wanting to believe what he is saying, wanting to believe the worst about the Americans.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.