One week into the war against Iraq, U.S. commanders are reviewing the rules of engagement as their troops struggle to contain hit-and-run guerrilla attacks by Iraqi irregulars dressed as civilians that have disrupted supply lines and thrown the allied campaign off-balance.
Allied troops marching on the Iraqi capital, as well as those guarding supply routes to the south, have routed the occasional regular Iraqi units. But they have been frustrated by fast-moving paramilitary groups who ambush and harass their units.
These fighters have caused far more allied casualties than have been inflicted by regular Iraqi units. They also have led U.S. troops to fire at civilian targets, occasionally with tragic results. Although it appears unlikely that the guerrillas alone could prevent an allied victory, they threaten the campaign's political objective: winning over the Iraqi people.
The severity of the problem was underscored earlier this week as U.S. Marines fought to keep the main north-south supply corridor through Iraq open near the southern city of Nasiriyah. After being fired upon more than once by guerrillas riding in small but crowded civilian jitney buses, a Marine guarding the road was so wary when one such vehicle came barreling toward him that he opened fire, killing all inside, according to military sources.
When the bus and the dead inside were searched, no weapons were found, according to Brig. Gen. John Kelly, the 1st Marine Division's assistant commander, who visited the site of the shooting.
Kelly said paramilitary fighters dressed as civilians were using citizens as shields when firing on Marines. The U.S. forces' usual response to being fired upon, he said, is "overwhelming" firepower, including the use of Cobra attack helicopters.
Kelly described the aftermath of one firefight as like "a Fellini movie," with soldiers, civilians and even children left wounded. A Marine, an Iraqi woman hit in the thigh and a baby wounded by shrapnel were being treated by military medics, he said.
"I don't think the baby was going to die, but it was [all] pretty lousy," he added.
Kelly told of a Marine captain who lost an arm during one such firefight and was waiting for medical care. The junior officer inquired about the men in his command and then, when asked by the general whether he was right-handed, replied: "Not anymore."
The guerrilla attacks take their toll on soldiers and Marines, not only causing casualties but also sowing mistrust among the civilian population that U.S. forces believe they are here to liberate.
Talking to reporters with the 1st Marine Division, Kelly noted the sharp contrast between current Iraqi tactics and those used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a broad coalition of nations pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in a 100-hour land battle.
"We didn't have this [paramilitary groups intermingled with civilians] in the Persian Gulf War," he said. "There, the fighting was in the open desert. Anyone with a weapon was a fair target, and we could use our weapons from a long range. This is a much tougher nut for the troops to deal with."
In the wake of paramilitary attacks, commanders have begun reviewing the initial rules of engagement for the Iraq campaign, which were crafted with the political goal of crushing President Saddam Hussein's regime without alienating Iraq's population or damaging the country's infrastructure.
To protect the supply corridor and two bridges over the Euphrates River near Nasiriyah, Marine commanders recently discussed leveling a string of bazaars that line both sides of the main road, after ambushes were mounted from building rooftops. They decided against such draconian action for now, instead continuing the approach of counterattacking with Cobra helicopters or infantry.
"When they come to hurt us, we kill them," Kelly said.
After being harassed almost nightly by paramilitary groups in recent days, elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division positioned east of Najaf blocked a nearby road Friday night and then spent several hours searching in vain for a Land-Rover-type vehicle that had intruded. According to officers with the 4th Battalion, 64th Armored Regiment, an A-10 Thunderbolt antitank aircraft had spotted a similar vehicle moving near the division's positions Thursday night but was refused permission to fire because the crew was unable to confirm that the vehicle was carrying weapons.
As paramilitary attacks have become more persistent, such stringent rules of engagement have started to rankle U.S. soldiers and Marines.
In addition to carrying out deadly ambushes with small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Iraqi irregulars have engaged in other, more subtle tactics.
Lt. Col. Patrick Fetterman, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment in the Army's 101st Airborne Division, told his troops that the enemy practices deceit and deception -- what the battalion's intelligence captain called the work of an "asymmetrical enemy." Fetterman told his soldiers, who are newly arrived in central Iraq, that the paramilitary fighters' tactics include dressing in civilian clothes and changing road signs to lure coalition soldiers into ambushes.
Other Iraqi tactics blur the line between civilians and the military. One officer mentioned a particularly successful Iraqi action reported by U.S. helicopter pilots. He said that, on a signal from forward observers armed with cell phones, Iraqi town officials turned off the local power grid near the city of Karbala to alert residents to climb to their rooftops with automatic weapons and wait for allied helicopters. The electric power was switched back on suddenly as a signal to open fire. The burst of light had the added effect of briefly blinding pilots wearing night-vision goggles.
Apache helicopter pilots attacking Iraqi targets outside Karbala early Monday morning reported fierce, coordinated ground fire from automatic rifles, machine guns and antiaircraft guns. The attack was apparently mounted by irregular forces, some elements of the regular army -- and ordinary citizens using weapons stashed at home.
Of the nearly three dozen Apaches involved in the operation, only one returned to base unscathed, intelligence officers said. One Apache was forced to land, either by gunfire or mechanical failure, and its two pilots were captured.
Intelligence officers said rules of engagement for the mission required pilots, out of concern for damage to power lines and other infrastructure, to fly to within 1,000 yards of their targets before attacking. But by coming in close, the helicopters lost their normal "standoff" advantage -- their ability to fire Hellfire missiles and 2.75-inch rockets from more than a mile away, out of range of ground fire.
In his briefing, Fetterman reminded his men that Iraqis can use cell phones to spread the word of approaching U.S. troops. He ordered company commanders to have their soldiers detain anyone they encounter and check them for weapons or any evidence that they are assisting Iraqi forces.
Not all civilians are threats, he said, but many are working with the Iraqi military, while others are forced to take up arms. He ordered his company commanders to eliminate what he called "the people behind the people shooting at us -- these political commissars."
Another threat reported in western Iraq, the colonel said, was the so-called black ninjas -- Iraqi soldiers in commando-style uniforms. Scouts from one of his companies reported seeing four of the ninjas earlier this week as they apparently probed the camp's defenses.
"These are legitimate targets," Fetterman said. "But be advised that there will also be people wearing ordinary black robes, which look different than these military black coveralls, so be careful."
Zucchino reported with the 101st Airborne Division and Perry with the 1st Marine Division. Times staff writer Geoffrey Mohan with the 3rd Infantry Division contributed to this report.