Early Portents of Protracted Iraq Conflict

Judging from the two battles swinging back and forth indecisively for weeks between US special forces units and Iraqi troops, the coming US-Iraq conflict is beginning to look to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts as though it will be far more protracted than originally estimated by US war planners. The time frame should be counted in months rather than weeks.

The southeastern battleground stretches from al Qut to the Gulf port of Basra, the northern one between Halabjah on the Iranian border and the Kurdish town of Suleymaniyeh. In the first, US forces are up against men of the elite Babel division of the Iraqi Republican Guard; in the second, a mixed Islamist Kurdish-al Qaeda-Iraqi military intelligence force. Both have mounted heavier than expected resistance to American-led initiatives.

In the southeast, where the fighting has been raging for seven weeks, the relatively small US contingent at first made rapid advances in its bid to push Iraqi forces into the cities of Al Halfyah, Al Amarah, Musallan, Al Qurnah and Al Muzayriah, and take control of the southern approaches of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers and their confluence. But the Iraqis rushed large armored, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units to the front, slowing US progress and in several places halting it completely.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say the US command was surprised by the mobility displayed by the Iraqi reinforcements. In contrast to the first Gulf war, when the Iraqi army stuck to static lines and then retreated, Iraqi units today move swiftly from place to place and disappear after fighting subsides. Experts chalk up the improvement to portable and movable heavy equipment, such as radar and missiles. When US warplanes strike, for example, mobile units are sent to the scene to replace those that are destroyed or damaged.

All this has caught the US war command by surprise. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources say US intelligence had predicted that Saddam Hussein would deploy the bulk of his forces around Baghdad and Tikrit to try to draw the US army into a hand-to-hand urban war of attrition. Instead, he dispatched top-notch units to eastern Iraq, near the Iranian frontier, where they stand ready for one of the most crucial engagements of the war.

Military and intelligence experts told DEBKA-Net-Weekly that Iraqi intelligence reached the conclusion that control of Iraq’s main waterways, the Euphrates and Tigris, was the key to determining the victor in the battle for the main cities of Baghdad and Tikrit. The Iraqi assessment was based mainly on intelligence information about a deployment on an unprecedented scale of a special US naval invasion force, spearheaded by the Seals, after it was trained especially in river warfare. The main strength of this naval force is positioned on the Iranian side of the border near the city of Abadan, although some units have entered eastern Iraq.

It is supported by a large number of amphibious armor, ships, landing craft, self-propelled pontoon bridges and amphibious planes. Some of the military experts consulted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly described the naval task force as the largest of its kind fielded for a military operation since the Vietnam War. The force is able to go into action at two to three hours’ notice. With a protective umbrella from planes taking off from air bases and aircraft carriers in the Gulf, the US Navy may well determine the outcome of the battle for eastern Iraq.

In northern Iraq, fighters from Jalal Talabani’s pro-US Patriotic Union of Kurdistan have failed for nearly three weeks to repulse a mixed pro-Saddam force made up of Kurdish fundamentalist Ansar al-Islam, al-Qaeda and Iraqi military intelligence. Talabani is America’s most important ally in this region and US special forces and intelligence units are fighting alongside his men.

When, on December 3, the Islamist contingent descended from its northern stronghold of Bayara on two PUK hill strongholds overlooking the key town of Halabjah, US military and Kurdish sources made little of the setback. They depicted the attackers as unskilled in combat and small in scale. In reality, the assault-force has proved to be highly organized, well trained and massively armed with heavy weaponry, such as artillery and 122 mm Katyusha rockets. As the battle raged non-stop last week, its reserve forces moved agilely around the battle sectors in brand new trucks.

The Kurdish defenders are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources as having mounted with limited success a series of sorties to dislodge the pro-Saddam force from positions threatening Halajbah, home to 44,000 Kurds, and break its grip on the highway to Suleimaniyeh, Talabani’s political and military center, which also serves as headquarters for the US units positioned around the big northern oil city of Kirkuk.

The pro-American Kurdish fighters were able to drive Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda out of the two hilltop positions they captured and kill their commander, Abu Abdallah al-Shafei, an al Qaeda man and veteran of its Afghan training camps. But the Islamic contingent retains a foothold in the area strong enough to have US military commanders and planners worried. Its position enables it to cut west from the Halabjah-Suleymaniyeh highway and sever US forces from access to Kirkuk. Alternatively, the Islamic fighters could strike directly at US army headquarters and transportation lines.

In any case, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources estimate that the US command must decide very soon which units to assign to wiping out this hostile element – American, British or Turkish.

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