Much Lies Outside Control of Allies

Times Staff Writer

U.S. and British forces have largely destroyed the capacity of the Iraqi military to mount organized resistance in more than a dozen cities, yet huge expanses of Iraq remain outside allied control.

In addition to Baghdad, where fierce firefights continue, allied forces have yet to seize much of thinly populated western and northern Iraq or the area around Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit -- the only region that appears to have enough intact military units to put up a meaningful fight.

Coalition troops have now taken control of the previously disputed cities of Basra, Najaf, Nasiriyah and Karbala, and have partial control in a dozen cities along their 300-plus-mile supply line to the south.


Commanders hope that dominance over ever-larger areas of the capital will push Iraqis to the “tipping point” -- convincing them to give up the fight and clearing the way for U.S. ground forces to make a final push through Hussein’s stronghold and the cities of the north.

Even so, U.S. and British forces continue sporadic battles in small towns of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys south of Baghdad. And they face the tough task of rooting out remaining regime loyalists who they fear could join up with Islamic fundamentalists from abroad to wage continuing guerrilla battles against coalition forces.

With only about 125,000 coalition troops in a country the size of California, the allied forces say they are not seeking to control every hamlet or capture every enemy fighter. Rather, they will consider the campaign victorious when they have crushed the largest pockets of resistance, making it safe for U.S. troops to move through the country and allowing life to return more or less to normal.

Last week, when U.S. forces broke through Iraqi lines south of Baghdad, allied control was still not established in the central and southern Iraqi cities of Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra.

Since then, coalition forces have gradually gained control along large sections of the supply line. British troops were greeted warmly in Basra on Monday after a two-week siege, and nearby Umm al Qasr, Faw and Safwan in the south are completely in allied control.

U.S. forces gained control over most of Karbala, Najaf and Nasiriyah over the weekend, along with Al Kut and Samawah.

But Baghdad is not the only remaining battleground. On Tuesday, there was intense fighting near the small town of Hillah, about 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, and in the countryside east of Karbala.

Yet U.S. military officials said the Iraqis seemed incapable of mounting a coordinated response, and are now unable to mobilize more than a few dozen vehicles -- often pickup trucks -- at one time.

U.S. forces are suddenly being greeted warmly in places like Najaf. Iraqis are offering more intelligence on the location of their leaders and are apparently suggesting where caches of weapons might be found. In many cities, if allied troops are not greeted with roses, they are at least not hindered.

In the early stages of the conflict, allied forces needed to spend time and manpower to protect their lines of supply and communication.

Although some units’ resources remain strained as looting and other threats to civic order have broken out -- as has happened to British troops this week in Basra -- the forces are now increasingly looking out for Iraqi civilians. Troops are taking control of local utilities to see that services remain available -- or can be restored.

U.S. and British forces are also increasing their effort to locate key supporters of Hussein’s government. This needs to be done to reduce the fears of Iraqi civilians, remove the threat of attacks and gather intelligence on where top leaders and caches of buried weapons are, observers say.

“This is going to be their first and primary problem,” said retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson. “Doing that will reduce a lot of the problems you have later.”

U.S. commanders continue to be cautious about the prospects for Baghdad, emphasizing that American forces still may see tough fighting from the thousands of Republican Guard troops, paramilitary fighters and security forces in the capital.

Most of the city of five million remains outside U.S. control. Pentagon officials say the goal is not real estate but to take enough key locations and rout enough defenders to make it clear to holdouts that the game is over.

Still, U.S. forces are making progress by the hour. On Tuesday, they seized a second airbase in the city, moved almost an entire U.S. armored brigade into downtown, and declared that they had finally taken full control of the skies over the country.

“The endgame is the end of the regime, and that’s now a lot closer than it was,” Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal said at a Pentagon briefing.

While U.S. forces have cut off the main highways from the city to prevent forces from fleeing, analysts say they are still likely to face a fight north of the capital -- in the direction of Tikrit -- after Baghdad falls.

Portions of two remaining divisions of the Republican Guard are between Baghdad and Tikrit, 100 miles to the north and the home of Hussein’s family and many government leaders. U.S. commanders are expected to wait for reinforcements from the Army’s 4th Infantry Division before moving toward Tikrit.

“Tikrit is home for Saddam, and that means the going could be a little slower,” said Daniel Goure, a former defense official who is now a vice president at the Lexington Institute, a research organization in Virginia.

While many of the ethnic Kurds in the far north and Shiite Muslims in the south have no love for Hussein, Iraqis living between Baghdad and Tikrit are core regime supporters and can be expected to put up bitter resistance, Goure said.

After Tikrit, forces are expected to move farther north to the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, an oil-rich region that has been coveted by Kurds.

Iraqi troops have not been aggressive against Kurdish fighters or the small numbers of U.S. Special Forces and infantry now in the region, and experts do not expect much of a fight.

The sparsely populated desert region of western Iraq is home to tribes that have long been sympathetic to Hussein, and there has been some speculation that he might flee there.

But after seizing several airfields and searching for Scud missile launchers at the start of the war, the Pentagon has been content to keep a close eye on the region without moving in large numbers of troops.