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War Could Last Months, Officers Say

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2003; Page A01

Despite the rapid advance of Army and Marine forces across Iraq over the past week, some senior U.S. military officers are now convinced that the war is likely to last months and will require considerably more combat power than is now on hand there and in Kuwait, senior defense officials said yesterday.

The combination of wretched weather, long and insecure supply lines, and an enemy that has refused to be supine in the face of American military might has led to a broad reassessment by some top generals of U.S. military expectations and timelines. Some of them see even the potential threat of a drawn-out fight that sucks in more and more U.S. forces. Both on the battlefield in Iraq and in Pentagon conference rooms, military commanders were talking yesterday about a longer, harder war than had been expected just a week ago, the officials said.


Troops from the 3rd Infantry Division weather a sandstorm less than 100 miles from Baghdad. Army sources say the division is running low on water. (John Moore -- AP)

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"Tell me how this ends," one senior officer said yesterday.

While some top planners favor continuing to press north, many Army commanders believe that the pause in Army ground operations that began yesterday is critical. A relatively small force is stretched thin over 300 miles, and much of the Army's killing power, in more than 100 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, has been grounded by persistently foul weather or by battle damage from an unsuccessful pre-dawn raid on Monday. To the east, the Marine Corps advance on the city of Kut was also hampered by skirmishing along its supply line and fuel shortages at the front.

More forces are coming, including the Army's 4th Infantry Division, which has begun pushing equipment from 35 ships into Kuwait after Turkey refused to allow U.S. forces to use its bases for a second front, into northern Iraq. But it will probably take the better part of a month for that tank-heavy division to get into position and provide combat power. Other forces heading to this region, including the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Carson, Colo., and the 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Tex., will require months to move their tanks and other armor from their bases into combat, the defense officials said.

Pentagon spokesmen rejected that pessimistic assessment yesterday and insisted that the war is still going according to plan. "The plan has moved almost exactly with expectations," Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at the briefing. "Fast where we expected it to be fast, gathering strength where we expected to do that. So the answer is, it's right on the mark."

But Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who maintains close ties to some senior Army generals, seemed to break with part of that assessment, saying in an interview with National Public Radio yesterday that it was becoming evident that the war "may take a little bit longer, don't know how long." He added: "The point is we have had a good battle plan, and it's a battle plan that will succeed."

In the short term, the Army plans to secure its strained supply lines with a portion of the 82nd Airborne Division, now positioned near Kuwait City, and troops from the 101st Airborne Division, which is gathering at a forward operating base deep inside Iraq, Army sources said.

The degree to which the supply lines have been stretched can be seen in the fact that the 3rd Division this week was alarmingly low on water and was also in danger of running short of food, the sources said. Heroic efforts have been made by truck companies and other logisticians, but a certain amount of chaos has developed, exacerbated by sniping and immense traffic backlogs from the Kuwaiti border. That traffic jam also has undermined Bush administration plans to quickly follow the U.S. military advance with tons of food and other humanitarian relief to win support among Iraqis.

"There's tremendous fog out there," an officer said, referring to the confusion of wartime operations, with logistical commanders struggling to figure out where various supply items are in a system that at times resembles "just a bunch of guys out there driving around."

Commanders would like to have a 10-day supply of food, water, ammunition, fuel and other basic supplies before launching a concerted offensive, but equally critical are items such as batteries and vehicle parts.

Also, Army commanders have differing views about how vigorously the war must be prosecuted in Iraqi cities and towns. "How bad do you want to do it? We have the capability to surround a city, cut off the water, cut off the electricity. We don't want to do that," said one general. "It's all about having military success, not about attacking the civilian population. But you have to break [Hussein's] will, to make him understand that he will not win."

But another officer noted that rooting out militiamen and other irregulars fighting in southern Iraqi cities would enormously complicate the U.S. military effort, requiring more troops and many more supplies. "Let's say you throttle An Najaf," he said. "Then you've got 600,000 people in the city and surrounding region you're responsible for providing food, water and medical care for." Each additional combat unit sent to Iraq also will add to the logistical strain, he said.

Overhanging all developments in the war this week is the unsettling realization that thousands of Iraqis are willing to fight vigorously. During planning for the invasion, worst-case scenarios sometimes predicated stiff resistance, but "no one took that very seriously," an officer said.


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