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U.S. commanders see mix of successes, unexpected setbacks

CAMP LIBERTY U.S. MARINE HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—Twelve days into the war against Iraq, commanders say they are pleased with how well soldiers and Marines have done on the battlefield, seizing vital bridges, crossing the Euphrates River and racing toward Baghdad at breakneck speed.

But they also acknowledge that armed resistance has been much bloodier and more determined than expected and that that has meant diverting thousands of troops from the assault on Baghdad to fighting rear-guard actions in the south.

Just shy of two weeks into the war, commanders believe the positives are these:

_American ground forces have pushed to within 50 miles of the Iraqi capital in three columns. The Army units are generally staying to the west of the Euphrates River, and Marine units are pushing up two routes through Mesopotamia, the fertile area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

_The Army has established a giant combat support base to the west of Najaf to support its operations there, and the Marines have established two airfields for Cobra attack helicopters and C-130 cargo planes, both in the Mesopotamia Valley. They also have laid a 70-mile pipeline from Kuwait that brings 1.3 million gallons of fuel a day to a base in southern Iraq.

_Resistance, while tougher than expected, has been relatively ineffective in stopping the advancing U.S. troops. The U.S. combat deaths so far, fewer than 50, is fewer than the 148 lost in the 1991 Gulf War to recapture Kuwait—one-sixth the size of Iraq—from an occupying army, not one defending its homeland.

_Marines successfully seized Iraq's richest oil field in Rumeila nearly intact, assuring its income for the country's reconstruction. The British Royal Navy's Sir Galahad docked Saturday in the Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr, delivering 400 tons of food and other relief supplies.

Among the developments that have not fit into American plans:

_Instead of jubilant Iraqis hailing their "liberators" or rising up on their own against the brutal 20-year-old rule of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party, American forces found civilians still terrified of Saddam, in part because the Iraqi president sent thousands of loyalists south to strengthen his regime's control over civilians.

_Instead of surrendering en masse, Iraqi troops have largely held on, not fighting particularly well but holding their ground and forcing U.S. commanders to assign thousands of troops to guard the advancing forces' supply lines and rear areas.

U.S. intelligence officials now believe local Baath Party officials are in command of resistance "task forces," made up of Saddam Fedayeen militias and other volunteers, Republican Guard officers and secret policemen.

"They've demonstrated a will to fight, a fanatical will to fight," one officer said. He noted that the Iraqi military in those regions seemed to be taking direction from those task forces as opposed to operating independently.

"We're running into a well developed infrastructure," the officer said.

As a result, two Army units that originally were to join the assault on Baghdad are tied up elsewhere. Two of the 101st Airborne's three brigades are fighting to suppress resistance at the city of Najaf. The 82nd Airborne is farther south, at Samawah, to suppress attacks against the supply lines and to secure another Euphrates crossing point to shorten supply lines by dozens of miles. As many as 10,000 Marines have been diverted from the Baghdad attack to secure the area near Nasariyah.

_Because Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to land there and move into Iraq from the north, elements of Iraqi Republican Guard divisions in the north have been able to move south to reinforce the units defending Baghdad.

Elements of the Adnan division moved down from their positions in the northern city of Mosul and then from near Tikrit, Saddam's hometown and political power base. Units of the Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar divisions also have been moved south of Baghdad.

"That is frustrating a lot of people," one IMEF commander said.

_The 1st Marine Division reported that it was consuming one-third more fuel than planned; one company of amphibious vehicles lost 20 percent of its vehicles to breakdowns and some Marines reported getting only one MRE a day.

Hope remains for what some troops call "the 9mm Solution," a coup or uprising in Baghdad that removes Saddam and his ruling clique, ending the resistance throughout the country and allowing American troops to go home early.

But some officers worry that the war might not be over even after Saddam and his minions are gone.

"You might be able to chop off the head," one officer said. "But the body is going to be twitching."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.