-- On Monday afternoon, in a stifling hot tent that had been rigged up as the tactical operations center for the 3rd Infantry's 1st Brigade, Maj. Benjamin Matthews sat half-slumped in a metal folding chair by a metal folding table in the sand. He looked very tired. Outside, a moderate sandstorm was beginning to kick up, and the air in the tent was hazy with brown dust.
Matthews had arrived hours earlier here at the center of the 3rd Infantry's forces in southern Iraq, after more than 30 hours of hard desert driving and -- unexpectedly -- fighting.
Matthews is the fire support officer for the 1st Brigade. He had traveled here in a small convoy of unarmored vehicles filled with fellow headquarters officers and staff. He had been following a route already covered by combat units, and by the time of his journey -- three days after the invasion of Iraq began -- this route was supposed to be secured. It had not been.
"We made contact in Samawah," Matthews said. "We were going right through the city, 20 of us in eight vehicles. We saw about five to eight guys carrying AK-47s running into an alley. They started shooting at us with the AKs and then started with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. They had a couple of tall buildings with good lines of sight looking down at us and that was where they shot the RPGs from. We got out of the vehicles and went into a firefight. It was not a feasible fight for us. We're not tanks and Bradleys. We had to get out of there and call in CAP [close air support]."
I asked Matthews what he thought of the way things were going.
"This is much tougher than anticipated," he said.
The planners of this war considered a range of scenarios. At the most optimistic, they hoped that the imminent threat of invasion would trigger the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. At the next rosiest level, they thought a regime collapse would follow an invasion in a matter of days. On the next rung was the idea that the American advance would be met by little armed resistance, which would allow for a swift advance and a possibly hard but brief battle with the Republican Guard's Medina Division south of Baghdad.
What actually happened in the first five days was a surprise and made the American advance significantly more difficult and dangerous. In large terms the plan has worked and the attack to date is an overwhelming success. The 3rd Infantry, which leads the assault, advanced more than 185 miles into Iraq in three days. It defeated the Iraqi 11th Division in one day with no American casualties. It established a supply line over forbidding terrain back into Kuwait that is supplying a fast-moving force of more than 20,000 soldiers and 10,000 vehicles.
But something else transpired. While Hussein's regular army has scarcely fought at all, an irregular force controlled by the Baath Party of militia, elements of special units and Fedayeen guerrilla fighters has conducted a campaign of small-arms hit-and-run warfare. These forces have essentially taken control of the southern cities of Samawah and Najaf, where they have established themselves in schools and hospitals and where they are reportedly forcing local men to arm and fight by executing the unwilling.
From these small urban bases, the forces loyal to Saddam Hussein have been able to harass U.S. forces with mortar and artillery fire and to send out a stream of small attack teams against the 3rd Infantry, forcing it to engage in repeated skirmishes.
Typically, these attacks involve small groups -- sniper teams of two or three men, or larger teams of as many as 20 or more vehicles manned by fighters with AK-47s, mounted machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. And typically, the attackers have been swiftly defeated. Third Division combat units have killed at least 300 to 400 Iraqi soldiers and irregulars and have captured as many prisoners. Air Force support and counter-battery artillery routinely have been able to take out the Iraqi guns soon after they expose themselves by firing.
But, in an important sense, the attacks have worked. As Col. William Grimsley, commander of the 1st Brigade, put it, "They are diffusing some of our attention, causing us to fight them instead of focusing all our attention on our larger objective."
The division commander, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, is candid about the threat. "The Baath Party is very well organized and very active with a lot of forces in Najaf and Samawah," he said in an interview Monday night. "And they are capable of responding fluidly to us."
It has always been the hope of the American war planners to avoid Iraq's cities, so as to minimize both American and Iraqi casualties. But there are doubts. "I think these guys are going to keep coming out and harassing us," Blount said. "I think eventually we're going to have to go in there and kill them. I think we will have to kill them unless we can get rid of the top guy in Baghdad."