The Next War
By Michael R. Gordon
New York Times
Friday 13 June 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 13 After American M-1 tanks rolled into Baghdad to depose Saddam Hussein, a question was raised as to where the United States might fight next. Would American forces continue their march to Syria? Or would the Bush administration step up the military and political pressure on Iran?
If the last week is any guide, the answer is: in Iraq.
The American thrust to Baghdad has toppled Mr. Hussein, although it is not clear whether he was killed in the process, or where he might be if he is alive. But the war has also set the stage for a long, hot summer during which American commanders hope to consolidate their victory by hunting the hard-liners from the old government run by Mr. Hussein and his Baath Party, and their friends.
This struggle pits American forces against an array of Baathists, paramilitary fighters, former Iraqi soldiers and a steady trickle of foreign militants who are said to have to come to Iraq for the express purpose of killing American troops.
Unlike the rush to Baghdad, this fight will not be measured in days, but in months, if not years. Nor will it be decided in the power center of the capital. The new battlegrounds include Baghdad, but also extend far into the north, and well to the west areas that American forces did not cover in substantial numbers during the war.
For the Americans, this is a campaign of raids, bombing strikes and dragnets, as American commanders try to isolate and destroy remnants of the old order. It is more like a counterinsurgency than an invasion. The American goal is to keep the pressure on and whittle down these fighters until a new Iraqi authority is able to maintain order.
For those battling the Americans, this is a war of ambushes, sniping attacks and bombings. Their goal is to bleed the Americans in the hope that they will decide that Iraq is more of a snare than a prize and leave. This week, it is the Americans who have the initiative.
The latest clash occurred today when the Third Squadron of the Seventh Armored Cavalry was fired on as it patrolled north of Baghdad. The Americans fired back, killing seven people. Villagers charge that some of those killed were civilians, and the precise circumstances of that fight are still unclear.
By one count by the American military, nearly 70 militants, including fighters in foreign dress, were killed Thursday in a raid on a militants' training camp northwest of Baghdad, toward the Syrian border. One wounded militant was reportedly taken into custody. American soldiers said they had seized a cache of SA-7 antiaircraft missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47's.
That raid began when American F-16's dropped satellite-guided bombs. Then American Special Operations forces and forces from the 101st Airborne Division attacked. An American Army Ranger was wounded in the leg, and an AH-64 attack helicopter was shot down; the downing of the helicopter did not produce any casualties.
Also in recent days, soldiers from the Army's 173rd Brigade captured 74 people they said were suspected militants. Near Balad, hundreds of troops from the Fourth Infantry Division spent days detaining scores of suspected Baathists.
There are several reasons why the fighting in Iraq has continued. One is that many of the fighters have no future in a new, post-Hussein Iraq. They were tied to the old order and still harbor dreams of driving out the Americans and returning to power.
Mr. Hussein is not believed to be directing their efforts and is not even known to be alive. But he still provides a rallying point for former Baathists. According to American military officials, many of them have been plotting their return as part of a movement called the Return Party.
Iraq has also become something of a magnet for Syrian and other foreign militants who want to attack Americans. There is no need to plan attacks against American troops in Saudi Arabia or American sailors in remote Persian Gulf ports. Some 140,000 American troops are now in Iraq, living in and around the major cities and conducting patrols along the roads.
Geography is another factor. Iraq is a country larger than California, and there are many hiding places. American forces are only now venturing west and north of Baghdad in substantial numbers. As the Americans fan out, they will increasingly encounter armed resistance. This is not new resistance, military officials say, but rather old resistance that the American troops here are only now taking on as they extend their reach in Iraq.
This is not a fight that allied commanders expect to settle with a single hammer blow. The American assessment is that much of the resistance is organized. That is clear, military officials say, from the signaling systems enemy fighters use in towns like Falluja to notify their fighters of the approach of American troops, the leaflets that have been found promising rewards for Iraqis who attack American troops, the ambushes that Iraqi fighters try to lay for American troops and the enemy camp in the west. But American officers do not believe that the assaults are controlled by a single enemy commander or organization.
American military commanders, in fact, seem to be trying to prepare the public for a prolonged campaign in which progress is not as linear as the march toward Baghdad.
"As we have actionable intelligence, we will strike hard, and that will cause the enemy to react," Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the chief allied commander, said on Thursday. "The cycle has been and will be for some time: action, reaction, counteraction."
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