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Iraq Journals

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Sunday, March 23

Analysis - As casualties and challenges mount, are Americans prepared?

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON — Dead American soldiers and live POWs on television, a suspected case of fratricide in the vaunted 101st Airborne, hundreds of thousands of anti-war demonstrators around the globe. Even as public opinion marshals around President Bush, the march toward Baghdad has been tempered with its first trying moments.

"This is just the beginning of a tough fight," President Bush told reporters Sunday at the White House.

The message stood in suddenly stark contrast to the first four days of the war, in which images of American forces rolling across Iraq and precision-guided bombs aiming at Saddam Hussein‘s power center dominated war coverage. Before Sunday, the largest questions had been aimed at the Iraqi leadership, the chief of which was whether Saddam was even alive and in control of his country.

But events on Sunday, including video of dead and captured American soldiers being shown on television throughout the Arab world, interrupted the momentum.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters "the outcome is certain." But as casualties and morale-challenging moments mount, questions persisted:

Did the Bush administration adequately prepare Americans for setbacks that would be played out on live television?

Are expectations, fed by early successes streaming across live TV, too high for a possible bloody fight for Baghdad?

The new talking points, at least Sunday, focused on future challenges — not past successes.

"The hardest part is yet to come," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC‘s "This Week."

"We expected the reaction we‘ve gotten so far. The future will be a little bit tougher."

U.S. networks struggled over how much to show of disturbing pictures of dead and captured American troops that were being widely shown on Iraqi TV and the Arab television network Al-Jazeera. By mid-day, CNN had shown only a faint, still picture.

Leading up to the war, the dominant analysis from a parade of retired military officers on American cable networks predicted a short war against a rag-tag foe. Few dispute that the U.S. military had gotten much better than the 1991 Persian Gulf War and that Saddam‘s regular army had been so diminished.

When Bush said in his March 19 speech announcing the war‘s beginning that the conflict could be longer than many Americans expected, a top American communications expert wondered why that message had not been stressed by other American officials in the lead-up to the war.

"I wish they had gotten that out there earlier," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She said that high expectations could make counter images of American setbacks harder for Americans to swallow.

She added that by allowing real-time media coverage of the war the United States hoped to win the early psychological war.

"They are very concerned with showing the visual image of U.S. power and U.S. authority," Hall Jamieson said of U.S. military authorities.

But, she added, the access could have a double-edged effect if American setbacks mount.

In an unprecedented marriage of modern news technology and military access, American and British units have been "embedded" with television and print reporters. Their early images and words predominantly focused on a mighty military machine rolling across the Iraqi desert, and a massive precision bombing campaign of Baghdad, with only small claims of collateral damage by Iraqi officials.

But Sunday, the focus turned toward an alleged grenade attack on superior officers by a 101st Airborne soldier, on heavy battles as U.S. forces approached Baghdad and on the disturbing POW images.

Bush‘s approval ratings have jumped since the war started, and polls show that about three-fourths of Americans approve of the war. But a prime challenge for American officials now will be to keep public opinion focused on an overall goal.

Bush tried to do that in a short question-and-answer session with reporters when he returned from Camp David.

He stressed that U.S.-led forces would soon be bringing humanitarian aid into Iraq and that Saddam would be removed from power after the United States "slowly but surely" completed its campaign.

Saddam, Bush said, "was somebody who starved his own people so he could build palaces."