The stubborn resistance from forces loyal to Saddam Hussein is changing the Iraq war in ways that could make it tougher for the United States to align its military and diplomatic goals.
From the outset, the United States and its allies have been hoping to limit the level of destruction, both to simplify postwar reconstruction and to maintain international support for the war. In the first hours, coalition military officials even raised the possibility of a relatively bloodless victory, achieved either by killing Hussein or by encouraging senior military commanders to revolt.
But all signs indicate that the U.S. now faces a more conventional military challenge: destroying an enemy that is resisting with full force. This could create political complications, especially internationally, by lengthening the war and raising its costs.
Indeed, many analysts believe that the Iraqi president is deploying his forces in ways meant to extend the conflict and increase the level of destruction -- both on American troops and on his own society -- in the hope of generating global pressure on President Bush to stop the war.
“His strategy is to drag it out for as long as possible and increase the costs to the United States and, in many senses, to Iraq,” says Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration. “From a strategic perspective, he wants the exact opposite of what we want.”
So far, the war hasn’t produced the nightmare scenarios the Bush administration feared most: terrorism in the United States, Iraqi attacks on Israel, widespread destruction of oil fields in Iraq or serious uprisings in Arab countries.
But neither has it yielded the windfalls that might help expand public support around the world: signs that Iraqis are actually welcoming American forces, as administration officials predicted, or indisputable evidence that Hussein has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.
Rather, the conflict may become something the American public hasn’t seen since Vietnam: an extended full-scale engagement, in the air and on the ground, that carries all the unpredictable risks of war, including U.S. casualties and prisoners of war and rising numbers of Iraqi civilian injuries and deaths.
Bush administration officials say they have been planning for that all along, and American casualty rates remain light. But it’s clear that some were hoping for an easier resolution.
In the war’s first hours, officials suggested that the U.S. was employing powerful but measured blows as a form of persuasion, hoping to convince Iraqi military leaders to abandon Hussein before they faced a full-scale attack.
In that sense, the initial stages -- though vastly larger in military terms -- were similar in strategy to the 1999 war in Kosovo. There, the United States and NATO sought not to obliterate the Yugoslav army but to persuade then-President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his forces from Kosovo. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, then NATO’s supreme commander, later called the war “coercive diplomacy.”
But in Iraq, coercive diplomacy appears to have run its course. In the last few days, the U.S. and Britain have downplayed talk of surrender, cautioned about a longer war and begun a conventional engagement to destroy Hussein’s most trusted Republican Guard forces south of Baghdad.
That creates the risk of higher American casualties and more spillover damage in civilian areas.
“If the cost to the United States increases, [Hussein’s] assumption is the U.S. public will turn against the war,” said Daalder, now a fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy center. “And if the cost to Iraq increases, world opinion becomes more insistent on ending the war. His only hope for survival is for us to give up, and the only way to do that is a combination of domestic opinion and world opinion.”
In the near term, more fierce fighting isn’t likely to dent support for the war in the U.S. New polls show backing for the invasion remaining high, even as expectations of an easy victory fell.
In a poll released Tuesday by the independent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the share of Americans believing the war is going very well plummeted from 71% Friday to 38% on Monday. But the percentage of those supporting the use of force remained at 74%, almost unchanged over that period. A survey released Tuesday showed a narrow majority in Britain also supporting the war.
From the moment of the first attack targeted at Hussein last Wednesday night, the coalition has offered a consistent message both to the world and to civilians in Iraq: They are conducting the war in a restrained way that concentrates the violence on the instruments of Hussein’s control while minimizing damage to the Iraqi public and infrastructure.
Yet the more Hussein’s troops can force the coalition into full-scale urban fighting -- as has been done in Nasiriyah -- the more that distinction could become blurred.
Two other developments have complicated the coalition’s picture of the war.
As recently as March 16, Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Hussein was so unpopular, American forces would “be greeted as liberators.”
But the U.S. and British forces have received few signs of greeting and instead faced firefights in cities they thought they controlled.
In his briefing Monday, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command, said the enduring fear of Hussein’s security forces explained why more Iraqis had not welcomed the invading forces or revolted against the regime.
On Tuesday, U.S. forces received some ammunition for their case, with sketchy reports of an uprising in Basra against the Hussein regime.
But the continued resistance in southern Iraq has allowed regime leaders to claim public support and to dispute Bush’s efforts to portray the incursion as a war of liberation.
Nor have forces yet discovered proof of the chemical or biological weapons that formed the centerpiece of Bush’s case for war, as officials acknowledged this week.
If Hussein does possess these weapons, he faces his own momentous decision on using them. Doing so could serve his goals of increasing American casualties and extending the war, but it also would prove Bush’s case. Whatever gains that offers on the battlefield, analysts note, it could shut any possibility of international pressure building on Bush and Blair to end the war. Most experts agree that such a scenario, though unlikely, represents the only way Hussein’s regime might stay alive.
In that sense, even a dictator like Hussein, without any meaningful domestic opposition, may have to balance his military means against his political goals -- in this case, survival.