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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Wednesday, April 2

Troops to face most dangerous unknown: Baghdad

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - As U.S. troops prepare to take Baghdad, topple its government and round up its thugs, war planners must make a key strategic calculation they have already botched once: estimate the resistance.

Failure to get it right could leave American soldiers highly vulnerable to Iraq's most desperate fighters.

Two weeks ago, when U.S. and British forces entered southern Iraq where some Bush administration hawks predicted that they would be met by cheering throngs, they encountered surprisingly tenacious fighting.

Within days, coalition soldiers were exchanging heavy fire in the cities of Umm Qasr, Basra, Nasiriyah and Najaf. Iraqi units succeeded in bogging down the advance on Baghdad and endangering supply lines.

Casualties were kept relatively low. But tough resistance in Baghdad could do more than tie up troops.

If Iraq's remaining Republican Guard units can retreat into Baghdad in large numbers they could put up a formidable fight there in their own streets, sniping from rooftops and possibly spraying chemical weapons.

What's more, no small amount of civilian resistance is expected from Saddam's loyalists and others who doomed to go down with the dictator.

Pentagon officials, stung by optimistic war predictions that never materialized, carefully avoid rosy scenarios when discussing Baghdad.

``We are not expecting to drive in to Baghdad suddenly or easily,'' Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Wednesday.

But U.S. troops are expected to drive in eventually.

As they advanced north, some American units chose to skirt the southern cities where they encountered resistance, leaving them for mop-up and security crews.

That's not an option in Baghdad.

The city of 5 million - viewed as one of the Arab world's most important and storied capitals - will have to be fully controlled by American troops.

The British are expected to remain in the south.

Soldiers and civilians

Tuesday's rout of Republican Guard units defending the southern approaches to Baghdad was some of the best news for the Pentagon since the start of the war.

Those guard forces - the Medina and Baghdad divisions - were some of Saddam's most elite troops.

But Pentagon officials stress that the Republican Guard has hardly been incapacitated.

So far, only two of its six major divisions have been smashed, while some have reportedly been equipped with gas masks and authorization to use chemical weapons.

One of the top priorities for U.S. bombers will be to prevent the remaining guard divisions from getting back to Baghdad where they can regroup. But more awaits American forces there than a weakened army.

Most of the trouble in the south came not from soldiers, but from an obscure militia now known as the Fedayeen Saddam. In Baghdad, U.S. Marines and soldiers face potentially hundreds of these expert street fighters pledged to die in suicide attacks.

On top of that are groups of armed civilians either willing to fight or left with no choice. Numbering possibly in the thousands, many of them are from Saddam's ruling Baath Party. If the government is toppled, they face either trials as war criminals or almost certain death at the hands of mobs they have tortured and taxed into abject poverty.

Trying to gauge the will to fight especially among the civilian population is extremely difficult, say military and intelligence experts. Baghdad is populated by diverse ethnic and religious groups, each with a different view of Saddam and the prospect of an American occupation.

Iraq's ruling Sunni Muslims, who have benefited under Saddam, face a loss of stature and possible revenge at the hands of Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish populations.

There is also the question of how many noncombatants would be willing to help U.S. forces with information and other aid, making the battle for Baghdad much easier and safer.

While Saddam is widely hated, many Iraqis may not think his demise is a sufficient reason to aid a U.S.-led occupation of their homeland.

``Many Iraqis are suspicious of U.S. motives,'' said Yitzhak Nakash, author of the ``The Shi'is (Shiites) of Iraq.'' ``They want the Baath Party out, but they don't know what the U.S. motives in all of this are.''

The war has not been terribly costly to coalition forces thus far, but Baghdad is a capital and a much larger city than any taken thus far.

For anyone loyal to Saddam or vehemently anti-American, this is the last stand.

Iraqi rebellion

Long before coalition troops entered Iraq, U.S. strategists were hoping for a popular uprising against the regime there to take care of any stiff resistance in Baghdad and eliminate the hazardous mission of hunting down Saddam and his henchmen block-by-block.

It was thought that once the American invasion had built momentum, the Shiites would rise up against Saddam, who has mercilessly oppressed them.

But nothing close has materialized.

Saddam's regime, whatever is left of it, has been trying to thwart this with a propaganda campaign subtly based on terror.

Iraq's state-run media are reporting that negotiations are under way for a cease-fire that would leave Saddam in power. It's an attempt to conjure horrific memories of 1991 when Saddam slaughtered thousands of rebelling Shiites who were counting on American help to take Baghdad.

Many experts believe that a revolt against Saddam's regime will only happen with proof he has been taken prisoner or killed.

``Iraqi people are so fearful of Saddam they're not going to believe he's dead now until they see him hanging from a light post,'' said former CIA analyst Ken Pollack.

By then, U.S. forces will already have run the war's most dangerous gauntlet: urban warfare in Baghdad.