As U.S. armored columns drive single-mindedly toward Baghdad, deliberately bypassing Basra and other cities in southern Iraq, they are taking a calculated risk.
The downside of the strategy is apparent: Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary fighters are finding it easier to attack U.S.-led forces bringing up the rear and their thinly protected supply trains. But the Pentagon maintains that it's all part of the plan.
Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur's "island hopping" in the South Pacific during World War II, commanders chose to open the invasion of Iraq by sidestepping potentially bloody, time-consuming battles to occupy Basra, Nasiriyah and other population centers in southern Iraq -- areas they considered strategically peripheral.
Instead they focused on their central goal: getting their most powerful forces -- hundreds of Abrams M1 tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and attack helicopters -- to the gates of Baghdad in record time.
The gamble was that enemy forces would not be able to mount significant attacks along the coalition's stretched-out supply lines or otherwise divert attention from the campaign to the north. U.S. and British forces rolling in behind the heavy armor that led the assault would mop up what initially seemed to be scant resistance.
But recent developments have cast a pall over the early successes.
Casualties have mounted in rear areas that U.S. forces had swept through virtually unopposed. Reports of Iraqi commanders surrendering whole units and enemy soldiers melting away have been replaced by accounts of deadly ambushes, helicopters falling to earth and American POWs being paraded on Iraqi television.
The abrupt surge in bad news has given rise to questions:
Has the U.S. battle plan come unraveled? Was it misconceived from the start?
If Saddam Hussein has forces in southern Iraq capable of bloodying coalition units, why were they not engaged and destroyed at the outset?
At the least, the recent spike in fighting allowed Baghdad for the first time to claim a measure of success, and thus strike at the aura of invincibility and inevitability that U.S. planners had sought to create.
Monday morning, when Army Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, briefed reporters at his headquarters in Doha, Qatar, a reporter from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates confronted him:
"In the beginning of the war, so-called coalition forces claimed taking full control of Umm al Qasr, then Nasiriyah, and yesterday Basra; and apparently, it seems now, it's not correct," the reporter declared.
"Are you practicing a strategy of lies and deception, or have you just been trapped by Iraqi army?"
The answer, Franks and many outside military analysts insist, is that recent resistance was expected, will be dealt with and will be a small price to pay for the benefits of the determined thrust toward Baghdad.
Problems have loomed large only because the first days made the war look too easy, military officials say.
"As you know, our forces have been moving rapidly. We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen," Franks said Monday, referring to a combination of regular Iraqi army troops and paramilitary groups loyal to Hussein.
"We know that the Fedayeen has in fact put himself in a position to mill about, to create difficulties in rear areas, and I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected," Franks said.
Even so, some observers suggest that war planners are making a mistake by not focusing more on securing key sites in southern Iraq. They point out that it increases the vulnerability of the 300-mile-long supply line on which the two forward units -- the 1st Marine Division and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division -- must now rely.
What's more, stiff Iraqi opposition in the port town of Umm al Qasr has blocked the movement of food, water and other humanitarian aid to an increasingly desperate civilian population. The longer it takes to begin this distribution, some say, the greater the dangers of political instability. Even as Iraqis in the south continue to wave at U.S. and British troops, a growing number are seething with anger as they struggle for basic necessities. In Basra, the country's second-largest city, water has been cut off.
"I'm looking to see what happens in the south," said Andrew Brooks, an analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. "If they can't control Basra easily, then what does that say about Baghdad?"
But the strategy for the war, including the decision to bypass population centers in the south, reflects a set of military and political conclusions reached by U.S. planners months before the invasion began:
First, U.S. and British forces had to deal such heavy blows to Iraqi forces in the opening days of the invasion that regular army units and perhaps even a portion of the more disciplined Republican Guard would realize the futility of resistance.
For Iraqi ground troops, said Gregory Urwin, a military specialist at Temple University in Philadelphia: "We're trying to give them a chance to surrender. We're trying to do it without killing a lot of Iraqis because that would play well with the Arab street."
Blitzing through to the outskirts of Baghdad with U.S. heavy armor was considered a key element in achieving this goal. It would, in effect, put the point of the coalition spear directly at the throat of the regime's defenders.
Baghdad is "the Iraq center of gravity," one senior military officer said soon after the invasion began. There is little sense in striking peripheral targets, he said, referring to the cities in the south.
Second, senior U.S. military leaders have been acutely aware that large-scale casualties -- whether coalition or Iraqi civilian -- could undercut their ability to prosecute the war.
World opinion -- already strongly against the United States -- would not tolerate massive loss of civilian life, a senior U.S. military leader said before the attacks began.
That consideration, like the belief that Baghdad alone held the key to victory, militated against trying to pacify Basra and other southern cities.
U.S. intelligence had alerted commanders to signs that Hussein was sending detachments of paramilitary and security forces into the south -- forces that could be expected to fight with dogged determination.
Engaging them in the streets of a southern city was a trap that coalition commanders did not intend to fall into, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon declared Monday.
Even if casualties could be held to a minimum, fighting in the cities would make a shambles of civilian life. Said a senior official, "We don't want to unintentionally create a lot of unnecessary displaced persons."
Bypassing enemy strong points and attacking on more favorable ground has been essential military doctrine for U.S. and British forces at least since the World War II era.
Gregory Clodfelter, a military historian at the National Defense University in Washington, said U.S. tacticians are following a doctrine laid down by British military thinker Sir Basil Liddell-Hart after World War I.
Liddell-Hart advocated "the indirect approach."
In this view, Clodfelter said, "any chance to bypass the enemy's strongest positions and go for the sweet spot, you always take it."
MacArthur followed the indirect approach in parts of his South Pacific campaign. He bypassed islands that were heavily defended by Japanese troops, seized lightly held islands and used them as bases for bombing campaigns against the enemy strongholds.
And the final stage of MacArthur's experience could only reinforce the determination of U.S. commanders in Iraq to avoid urban warfare as long as possible.
When MacArthur returned to the Philippines in the final stages of the war, he faced fanatical Japanese forces head-on.
"The house-to-house fighting in Manila was a bloodbath," Clodfelter said.
Taken altogether, U.S. officials say, the bypass approach is sound strategy in the south. They expect the present resistance in the south to be dealt with fairly quickly. If not, there will be time enough for the sledgehammer.
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall reporting from Doha, Qatar, contributed to this report.