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War Could Last Months, Officers Say

"The whole linchpin of this operation was the reaction of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi ground force," said retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew, a specialist in war planning. "If they don't turn, and so far they haven't, we have a very different strategic problem facing us than when we went in."

When Army combat operations resume, major adjustments are likely in strategic goals and targets. The sources said that some of the major assumptions underpinning the U.S. approach are being discarded. The planned blitzkrieg to Baghdad has stalled. Air power has delivered less than expected. And Saddam Hussein and those around him still appear to have a firm grip on the Iraqi military and people. In an extremely unusual battlefield action, two Army M1 Abrams tanks were badly damaged in combat Tuesday.


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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Graphic: Resupply in Iraq.

An Army general and others said that rather than slice through Republican Guard defenders and drive straight for Baghdad, the Army and Marines are likely to be forced to focus on wiping out most of the Guard divisions facing them south of Baghdad.

"I think you need to defeat them in detail," said the general, using the military term for destroying a unit. "I think you should 'Pac Man' the ring around Baghdad," he said, referring to the 1980s computer game in which a big dot gobbled up smaller ones.

Retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey said the Army and Marine forces converging on the Republican Guard south of Baghdad will have no choice but to continue to attack those Iraqi defenders. "We've got no option, we're committed," he said. But, he added, "I wouldn't go into Baghdad before I had another armored division come up into my rear."

The question is whether the 3rd Infantry Division will be able to continue to fight the Republican Guard without reinforcements. "I think the Third I.D. is going to run out of steam pretty soon, both people and machines," said Killebrew, the retired Army planner.

But McCaffrey, who during the 1991 Persian Gulf War commanded what is now the 3rd Infantry Division, said he thought the unit was capable of taking on all three Republican Guard divisions on the southern side of the so-called red zone that marks the capital's defensive perimeter.

Another key variable is how effective U.S. warplanes will be in aiding the Army and Marines by hitting Iraqi military forces in the heavily populated, well-vegetated Euphrates River valley. That is a far different proposition than striking Iraqi armor in the flat, open desert, which was the major task of U.S. air power in the Gulf War. Over the last two days, U.S. airstrikes have been curtailed by the powerful sandstorms that have howled through central Iraq.

Military intelligence indicated that elements of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard were taking advantage of the cover provided by the tail end of the storms to move toward the Karbala Gap, a narrow strait between Lake Razzaza and the Euphrates, a military official said yesterday.

Some Pentagon officials were practically gleeful at the development, with one saying the column would be "like shooting fish in a barrel" or like "a turkey shoot."

But others were less sanguine. The column is moving from fighting position to fighting position, from revetment to revetment, always taking protective cover. "This is their turf," one official said. "They've probably done exercises there their whole life. The defense of Baghdad is all they've trained for."

Finally, the resilience of the Medina Division will be a major indicator of whether the 3rd Infantry Division can do the job by itself or will have to dig in and wait for help in April from the 4th Infantry Division.

Unless the Iraqi government collapses after part of the Republican Guard is destroyed, an attack on the capital is likely to be postponed until that division arrives, some defense officials and other experts predicted.

"We're not going to rush headlong into the city, absolutely fruitless to do so and suicidal at best," a Pentagon official said. "The goal is to encircle the city and take it on our terms."

Retired Army Col. Benjamin W. Covington, an expert in tank warfare, agreed, saying: "Everything on the ground depends on the arrival of the 4th Infantry Division. I expect the final battle for Baghdad will occur when they are in the fray."

Some Pentagon insiders and defense experts vigorously contested these pessimistic assessments.

"This is not a crisis," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is a friend of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and of Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the U.S. commander in the war. "The plan is going surprisingly well so far."

Gingrich, who also is a member of the Defense Policy Board, a top Pentagon advisory group, said the key fact to keep in mind is that U.S. forces drove to within 50 miles of the capital in just six days without being engaged by regular Iraqi forces. "If they come out and fight us, they will be annihilated," he said.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich agreed with Gingrich's view, saying: "Despite the best efforts of the Iraqi military, they have not been able to stop a fantastic rate of advance, one of the greatest advances in military history, and they have not been able to do more than ding the coalition juggernaut."

One senior general at the Pentagon, listening to both sides of the argument, said he thinks that in short term the pessimists will look right, but will be proved wrong by mid-April. "There are some tough days ahead," he said. "I think this whole thing is at the culminating point. Within the next week to 10 days, we will find out about the mettle of the Republican Guard." But he concluded, "Once we smash the Medina and Baghdad divisions, it's game over, and I think Baghdad will fall."

Correspondent Rick Atkinson in central Iraq and staff reporters Jonathan Weisman and Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.


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