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Thursday, March 27

Coalition more risk-wary as it approaches Baghdad siege

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The first week of the war with Saddam Hussein saw coalition forces crossing 250 miles of Iraq's hostile, sandblasted desert in blitzkrieg fashion.

Significant changes are in the works for week two.

The bold advance from Kuwait through Iraq is likely to slow around Baghdad as war planners carefully assess progress and problems so far, and prepare for what could be a bloody urban battle that cannot be undertaken with the kind of risky sweep used to move north.

At stake is the U.S. plan to rebuild Iraq and then jumpstart stalled peace plans for the Middle East.

Recent strategy and rhetoric indicates the U.S.-led coalition is now bracing for the most difficult phase of the war, one that cannot by rushed by false expectations or irrelevant comparisons to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam's ground troops were routed within days in open terrain.

In Baghdad, coalition forces will find themselves in tight streets, below snipers on roofs. Air support will be significantly limited while ground troops will be forced to rely as much on battering rams and grappling hooks as night-vision goggles.

"We're now engaging the dictator's most hardened and most desperate units,'' President Bush said Thursday at Camp David, alongside visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "The campaign ahead will demand further courage and require further sacrifice.''

Indeed, the obstacles are not like any encountered so far, and the risks are higher than any faced in the open desert of the south, where skirmishes lasted hours and air power went virtually unchallenged.

The coalition now faces Saddam's elite Republican Guard units dug in around Baghdad, potentially with chemical weapons and the authorization to use them.

Inside the city, some 5 million civilians await their fate, which for many could mean being used as human shields or as corpses in a propaganda campaign meant to fan the flames of international hatred for the United States.

After the war, the president will come under intense pressure from Arab and European allies - some of which called for a cease-fire at the United Nations Wednesday - to move aggressively on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

And Bush is already preparing.

"History requires more of our coalition than a defeat of a terrible danger,'' he said Thursday. "I see an opportunity, as does Prime Minister Blair, to bring renewed hope and progress to the entire Middle East. Soon, we'll release the road map that is designed to help turn that vision into reality.''

A bloody siege of Baghdad with a massive civilian body count could enrage the Arab-Muslim world and potentially dash those plans.

Saddam knows that and he's is already starting to show his hand. In Basra, Iraqi forces battling British troops have been threatening civilians with death if they don't take up arms and fight.

Tweaking the plan

Top U.S. generals admitted they had made several miscalculations in their initial battle plan, albeit hardly fatal, and they're now fixing them in preparation for an assault on Baghdad.

Their first and most obvious error was underestimating Iraq's Fedayeen Saddam militia, which launched numerous ambush attacks on vulnerable coalition supply lines in the south.

The conventional wisdom going in was that Saddam would withdraw his best troops toward Baghdad, and he has done essentially that.

The surprise turned out to be how tenacious his Fedayeen militia has turned out to be.

"Even Saddam never expected his irregulars to have this kind of success,'' said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.'' "This was a bonus for him. There was a risk in the U.S. strategy - the supply lines - and the Fedayeen militia took advantage of that.''

U.S. forces slowed their advance on Baghdad in order to ferret out the widely dispersed Fedayeen troops while the British are facing large numbers head-on in Basra.

The coalition is rapidly addressing its second major shortcoming - the lack of a northern front against Baghdad - with massive airdrops onto strategic targets.

"This complicates the problems for Saddam Hussein in terms of what he needs to worry about,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

The 173rd Airborne Brigade is now securing the oil fields north of Baghdad and a vital airport nearby, which might be used to unload ground troops.

Early war plans called for flying sorties to northern targets in Iraq from air bases in Turkey and launching the 4th Infantry Division from there as part of the ground campaign. But they were dashed when the Turkish Parliament, facing widespread popular opposition to the war, shot down the proposal.

About 20,000 troops from the 4th Infantry Division are about to arrive in Kuwait where they could be deployed quickly to the north to assist the 173rd in opening a powerful northern front. But that could take a week or more.

Preparing for the worst

Even as the war began, hopes ran high among military planners that much of Saddam's army would surrender rather than fight a doomed campaign.

That has not happened.

Early confrontations between U.S. Apache Longbow helicopters and the Republican Guard's top Medina Division in central Iraq, where choppers took heavy fire, indicate Saddam's guard intends to put up the stiffest resistance coalition forces have seen yet.

The Medina Division has prepared to fight from dug-in positions south of Baghdad, where the vegetation of the Euphrates Valley will provide vexing cover from high-flying coalition air support.

To the north, Saddam's Nebuchadnezzar guard division is already in place along with the Special Republican Guard's 3rd Brigade.

Saddam is banking that Americans will not have the stomach for a prolonged siege of Baghdad and the hundreds or thousands of casualties it might bring.

In the gulf war, field generals were told not to accept losses over 10 percent.

There are no limits this time.