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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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Monday, April 14

Lessons of recent history loom large in Iraq war

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The bitter lessons of urban combat learned from U.S. soldiers dying in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 proved invaluable in preparing for the war against Iraq.

Saddam Hussein threatened to create a ``series of Mogadishus,'' but astute planning by U.S. strategists prevented it.

Now as Iraq struggles to regain order after several days of looting, shooting and chaos, another American military campaign looms as a potential example of what to avoid: Kosovo.

In 1999, when the Serbian government fell after U.S. bombing raids there to stop an ethnic slaughter, the vacuum it left created bedlam and sparked a disastrous flood of refugees.

U.S. forces, surprised by the rapid collapse of the Iraqi army, are now scrambling to prevent a replay of Kosovo in the swirling chaos of a war in its final days.

Military planners who came under fire in the early stages of the war for not having enough boots on the ground to fight, are now facing critics who claim they don't have the forces necessary to stabilize Iraq. Critical to the first phase of that mission is getting basic life-support services up and running again so Iraqis stay put.

``This postwar reconstruction should have started already,'' said retired Army Gen. William Nash, now director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Preventive Action. ``In the liberated areas, it's imperative that we get to work.''

It's not that U.S. military planners ignored the risks of a postwar collapse of power and order. Rather the war progressed faster than they anticipated, leaving a power vacuum much sooner than troops were prepared to handle. Once the Iraqi southern front from Karbala in the west to Kut in the east collapsed, Baghdad fell within days and Iraq was effectively rudderless. Some experts were predicting weeks of urban warfare in Baghdad.

The Army's 4th Infantry Division, which recently arrived in Kuwait, is now plowing through southern Iraq toward Baghdad where it will take over some of the policing duties Marines have largely been doing. Meanwhile, about 2000 Iraqi police officers have been regrouped to work with U.S. forces.

Still, aid organizations are complaining that much of Iraq, especially west of Baghdad, is not secure enough for them to enter and Iraqis in some areas will soon run out of food.

If that happens, refugee flows are a virtual certainty.

The Bush administration insists the situation is contained and is being brought under control.

``The coalition forces are in a good portion of the country, but not all the country - they're in Baghdad, but not all of Baghdad,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. ``Food, water and medicines are being moved through the country.''

But not quickly enough to prevent looting at hospitals, which has been rampant.

The days ahead will be critical in determining whether the coalition forces can restore order and prevent a mass movement of Iraqis.

If southern Iraq is an indicator, it looks as if time and troops can quell the disorder.

Despite more than a week of looting and vigilante killings, British Marines in the southern city of Basra have been able to restore some of the order there.

But in the north, U.S. forces face potentially fierce ethnic tensions that Saddam's regime was able to control with the threat of violence.

Over the weekend in the northern town of Kirkuk, Kurdish and Turkmen fighters exchanged sometimes-heavy fire just a day after the Iraqi regime lost control of the oil-rich city.

If that fighting gets worse, it could force U.S. troops into a complicated peacekeeping role, which they were unprepared for in Kosovo, forcing thousands of Muslims to flee Serbs bent on revenge for earlier clashes.

Some of the most dangerous ethnic hatred elements in Kosovo are dangerously present in Iraq.

``We are potentially facing a period of retributive violence in Iraq,'' said James Dobbins, director of international security and defense policy at the Washington, D.C.-based Rand Corporation. ``We now have to worry about Iraqis killing Iraqis.''