The Iraqi military has dispersed its forces along key roads and is engaging U.S. and British forces in as many towns and cities as possible, with elements of regular army divisions fighting harder and more effectively than some Pentagon officials ever expected.
This defensive strategy is designed not to win the war, given the overwhelming superiority of the coalition forces, but to draw it out in hopes that pressure from the international community will ultimately stop the invasion. The strategy has been greatly enhanced by an array of tactics effective in such "asymmetrical" conflicts -- from stationing military equipment next to historic landmarks to booby-trapping oil fields. Meanwhile, guerrilla forces of Saddam's Fedayeen have maintained pressure on the invading forces.
"Iraqi forces have been countering the U.S.-led operation with a form of 'outside-in' strategy, defending their country from the periphery to the center," said Jeff White, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Although the coalition is winning every significant engagement and has penetrated to the heart of the country, Saddam Hussein's regime is demonstrating that it is a dynamic opponent, capable of understanding what it faces, and coming up with surprises."
"When you go into someone else's back yard," one U.S. Army officer added, "the fight always changes. And they're willing to fight this time."
White and other analysts inside and outside the Pentagon also said coalition forces could be forced to fight their way through far more Iraqi divisions on their way to Baghdad than is generally understood. Three Republican Guard divisions -- the Baghdad Infantry Division, the Medina Armored Division and the Hammurabi Mechanized Division -- are known to be south of Baghdad, arrayed east to west, from Kut to Ramadi, they said.
Elements of at least three regular army units, the 6th Armored, 11th Infantry and 51st Mechanized divisions -- whose willingness to fight had been a huge question mark before the war began -- are aggressively engaging the coalition forces in Basra, Nasiriyah and Najaf, among other locations, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a former Pentagon official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who is an expert on the Iraqi military. Their actions have not been fully appreciated, largely because media attention has been focused on the looming fight between the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the capable and well-equipped Medina Division of the Republican Guard.
"There is a natural tendency on the part of both media and combat units to focus on the enemy that is most dangerous or most striking, rather than the actual mix of forces that may be involved," Cordesman said. "But the regular army forces in southern Iraq at the start of the war totaled two armored, one mechanized and three infantry divisions."
One mystery that could end up complicating matters for coalition troops, Cordesman said, is the whereabouts of the entire 4th Corps of Iraq's regular military. Its three principal units, the 10th Armored, 14th Infantry and 18th Infantry, about 25,000 to 30,000 troops based in south-central Iraq and assigned to guard the border with Iran, have not been heard from on the battlefield.
"There is no way to know what elements survive, have fallen back towards Al Kut and Baghdad, or have elements deployed near the Marine and British 1st Armored line of advance," Cordesman said.
Briefing reporters at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command in Qatar, U.S. and British officials said they continue to see signs that Iraq's centralized command and control has been badly degraded. "Our direct attacks against the regime's structures and units continued in the last 24 hours," said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, Central Command's deputy director of operations. "We're seeing locally controlled military and paramilitary actions, frequent survival moves by regime leaders, and uncontrolled firing of air defense missiles."
British Air Marshal Brian Burridge added that the Iraqis do not seem to be reacting to attacks by moving their forces in ways that would normally be expected. "Were the positions reversed, then I'm afraid I'd have my corps and armored divisions in a very different disposition," Burridge said. "There are signs that the reaction to events is poor. There are also signs that they are finding it exceedingly difficult to maintain communication amongst themselves and thereby exercise command and control."
One obvious problem with the way Iraq's forces are now arrayed is that three Republican Guard divisions -- the Nida, Adnan and Nebuchadnezzar -- are north of Baghdad, with the main coalition force advancing from the south.
On the other hand, Iraq seems to be employing to good effect lessons it learned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War -- primarily, that it cannot maneuver large armored and mechanized forces to achieve effects on the battlefield without being destroyed by U.S. air power. "Remember the 'road of death'?" asked one defense official, referring to a highway in southern Iraq that U.S. fighter jets left littered with the hulks of hundreds of Iraqi vehicles fleeing Kuwait. "All of our bomb footage you see now is of things in defended positions."
White, a Middle East military expert during his 34-year career at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it is precisely this inability to maneuver that has led Iraq to "trade space for both time and dissipation of the coalition's ground forces."
"The Iraqis are using the long distances from the border to Baghdad and the large volume of the country as a whole -- the size of California -- to absorb coalition effort," White said. "The regime has clearly decided to fight from within the country's own population, and this tactic will inevitably slow coalition ground operations."
The Marines have already captured a hospital in Nasiriyah that was being used as a military command post.
Inside they found a tank and more than 170 soldiers. At Central Command, Brooks reported that the Iraqis are also "positioning military equipment in and around cultural, religious and historic landmarks."
Asked whether the Iraqis might begin booby-trapping cities as coalition forces enter, Burridge said he thought they would, saying that "a classic example is in the oil infrastructure, where many of the wellheads and the control mechanisms [in the Rumaila oil fields] were, indeed, set for demolition. . . . This is the way irregular forces operate."
Even more ominous was the discovery of hundreds of chemical suits in the hospital and hundreds more in the oil fields, Brooks said, suggesting that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has prepared at least some of his forces for an attack involving chemical weapons.
But White, for one, doubts whether a chemical attack will be an element of Iraq's "outside-in" strategy, which seems designed to keep the regime "in the fight as long as possible" and to avoid such things as the use of weapons of mass destruction "that would be tantamount to suicide."
"The Iraqis are showing that they can both achieve and exploit small victories," he said. "The fighting at Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah has allowed the regime to cite these as examples of heroic national resistance."
As one Army general put it: "If I had to design the Iraqi battle plan, this is probably what I would have come up with. [Saddam Hussein] can't take on the U.S. Army, so he is fighting a political battle."