Gains and losses

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

in Bahrain

NEVER before in its military history has the United States employed what is being termed "psychological warfare'' and political assassination as core instruments of its strategy to shorten what would otherwise be a long-duration and high-cost war, as it has done in Iraq. In fact, the second Gulf War against Iraq, which began on March 20, started with a failed pre-dawn attempt to kill Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the top leadership of the Baath Party in a single surgical strike. It now appears that the prime targets, President Hussein and his son Qusay, who has been put in charge of the defence of Baghdad, were not present there when three-dozen cruise missiles and four 2,000-pound bombs landed.

The attack also had a prominent psychological dimension to it. Even if it failed, it was meant to unsettle the Iraqi leadership by demonstrating that the U.S. had developed moles within its innermost core. Otherwise, obtaining real-time information about the location of the leaders would not have been possible. An intense misinformation campaign to show that the Iraqi regime was becoming dysfunctional preceded the strike. The day before the attack, rumours were spread that Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz had defected and was being interrogated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) somewhere in the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq.

Weeks before the war, the U.S. media had begun talking about the U.S. unleashing a "shock and awe" air campaign of unprecedented intensity that the Iraqis would find impossible to resist. Added to this was the publicity given to the U.S. developing a massive 9,000-pound bomb, which in a single blast could kill an entire army battalion. The purpose of this carefully calibrated exercise was to break, at the very outset of the war, Iraq's will to fight, in anticipation of the use of overwhelming force by the U.S. military machine. Hoping that its campaign would have taken effect, the U.S., has been looking for mass surrenders and defections from among the Iraqi leadership soon after the fighting began. Aware that it would need the support of the Iraqi people to stabilise the country after a "regime change", the U.S., driven by the politics of a post-war scenario rather than military logic, has so far been trying to win the war by avoiding bombing the Iraqi people extensively.

While it has made significant military gains on the ground, the U.S. campaign of "psychological warfare", as of now, has not made any significant headway. Although the Iraqi 51{+s}{+t} Division, along with its 200 tanks, has surrendered in Basra, the bulk of the Army has not capitulated. Despite the intense bombing of Baghdad, the elite Republican Guards that have concentrated in the Iraqi capital in three tiers have not shown signs of wilting. At the southern port city of Umm Qasr, which the U.S. and British forces captured a day after the war, "mopping up" operations have proved time-consuming.

Contrary to expectations, the Iraqis at Umm Qasr have not erupted in jubilation, as might have been expected had the Anglo-American troops been seen as "liberation forces". These signs, military analysts say, must be worrying for U.S. Central Command chief General Tommy Franks.

The next test to gauge the Iraqi public mood could be the response that awaits the Anglo-American forces in Basra. A show of indifference or hostility in Basra and further along the Euphrates and Tigris river valleys should ring alarm bells in Washington, as these are the areas that are dominated by Shias who apparently have been the subject of oppression by Saddam Hussein's largely Sunni regime. If the response in the Shia heartland is less than enthusiastic, the reception the U.S. forces are likely to get in Hussein's strongholds of Baghdad and Tikrit could well be downright hostile.

On the ground, the U.S. and British forces have been trying to accomplish four core strategic objectives. First, the invading forces have been hoping to establish early control over Iraqi oil resources, which are concentrated around Basra, and the extensive infrastructure of pipelines and pumping stations that surround these facilities at the Faw peninsula.

Second, the invading forces have been seeking to establish control over the "Scud-box"sites in Iraq's western desert zone, which have been used in the past to fire Scud missiles into Israel. Third, the Anglo-American forces are targeting Iraq's northern oil fields surrounding the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Although unseating the Saddam Hussein regime is at the heart of the military campaign, seen from the perspective of grand strategy, the objective of the U.S. and British operations appears to go beyond precipitating a `regime change' in Baghdad. Rather, it can be argued that the war in Iraq is part of a well-thought-out exercise, scripted for nearly 30 years by the hawks in the Republican Party and right-wing think tanks, that is aimed at establishing direct control over the world's major oil reserves so that the U.S. can firmly emerge as an unrivalled global power. By controlling the world's energy heartland, it is not energy security that the U.S. wishes to achieve. Instead, as writings of neo-conservative think tanks close to the George W. Bush administration, such as the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), indicate, Washington wants to arm itself with the capacity for unprecedented leverage which it can exploit to impose its political will over the rest of the world.

The idea, which is driven by the logic of geopolitics rather than economics, is not new. Discovered soon after the invention of the internal combustion engine, oil has been well recognised as an instrument of political power and it has arguably propelled all the major imperial drives since the First World War. So far the Anglo-American forces' single most important military success is the capture of Iraq's southern oil fields and the Faw peninsula, which juts into the Persian Gulf. By controlling the Faw peninsula, the invading forces have grasped southern Iraq's intricate oil infrastructure, including the network of pipelines and pumping stations, and have positioned themselves to command this region's major oil export route. By sitting on the Faw peninsula, these forces can dominate a large portion of the Shatt al Arab waterway - the 193-km-long channel heading out after the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates, which has carried Iraqi and Iranian oil into the Persian Gulf.

Umm Qasr can also relieve the Kuwait port, which has become congested with U.S. military supplies. Besides, it can funnel humanitarian aid into southern Iraq, thus aiding the Anglo-American image-building effort of being seen by the Iraqis as a benign and egalitarian force. Most of the oil wells of the Rumaila oil field, the biggest in southern Iraq, are intact and under control, though the Iraqis have torched nine of the 400 wells in this field.

On the western Iraq-Jordanian front, though significant military gains have been achieved, a lot of ground is still to be covered. The U.S. forces have captured the Iraqi H-2 and H-3 bases, which were used in the 1991 Gulf War to fire Scud missiles at Israel. The military threat to Israel has been, therefore, substantially reduced. However, there is a significant section of the desert through which the Syrian-Iraqi rail line cuts, which the allied troops are yet to dominate.

The western front is important from another perspective too. Once under control, it would give General Franks the option to launch another line of attack on Baghdad. Besides, troops can be sent to reinforce the rather thin presence, mostly of U.S. Special Forces and intelligence personnel, in Kirkuk and Mosul.

The biggest problems that the U.S. and British forces could encounter are likely to be in northern Iraq, where their prime objective is to secure the oil fields. Besides, the Anglo-American forces are hoping to position a base in this zone at some point of time in order to launch a northern assault on Baghdad. But after prolonged negotiations, Turkey has denied the U.S. permission to transit its forces into northern Iraq. The U.S. therefore has been unable to send in the tanks and troop carriers of its fourth armoured division into northern Iraq. Consequently, the U.S. attempt to open a second front against Iraq, which would have facilitated the seizure of the northern oil fields, has been dropped for the time being. Mosul and Kirkuk have been subjected to air raids and there have been reports that the U.S. Special Forces might have covered ground to seize the Kirkuk oil fields. But reinforcements, coming from the west or the south, would be required to prolong their hold over this area.

There was good and bad news for the Americans over the weekend of March 22-23. After intense pressure from Washington, and surprisingly from Germany, Turkey stated that it was abandoning its plans to send in its forces into northern Iraq. In case Ankara sticks to its word, the U.S. forces would be better-positioned to shepherd a much larger armed force of Turkey's bitter foes, the ethnic Kurds, in the direction of Mosul and Kirkuk. But it is likely that, once such a situation arises, the U.S. forces would prefer to establish direct control over the oil fields, rather than involve the Kurds in this exercise. The U.S. is well aware that by endorsing the movement of the Kurds into the oil enclaves, a civil war-like situation can develop in these areas. Any Kurdish involvement in administering Mosul and Kirkuk could result in violent resistance from ethnic Turkomans, who are widely seen as Turkey's fifth column in the northern Iraqi oil cities and who live there in large numbers.

The bad news is that the U.S. and British forces have begun to take casualties. At least 20 U.S. troops were killed on March 23 and 50 or more were wounded, mostly near the strategic town of Nasiriyah on the banks of the Euphrates. Footage on Iraqi television showed that five U.S. soldiers had been taken prisoner. The U.S. has acknowledged that 12 of its troops were missing. The British, on the other hand, had lost 16 soldiers and two were missing in the first four days of the war.

While the U.S. grapples with mounting problems on various fronts, its armoured columns of the Marines, followed by the forces of the Third Infantry Division, were racing towards Baghdad along the Tigris-Euphrates valleys. In their attempt not to lose momentum in the thrust towards Baghdad, the Iraqi forces present in strategic towns on the Euphrates such as Nasiriyah and Najaf were being by-passed. For the U.S., rear area security can become a problem, in case the upcoming battles for Baghdad become prolonged.

AMID the heat of the war, the faint contours of a possible post-war power sharing arrangement in southern Iraq may be beginning to take shape. In a significant development, Kuwaiti troops showed up at Umm Qasr soon after the British and U.S. forces took over the city on March 21, and hoisted their flag over a captured building. Military analysts are veering to the view that the symbolism here could mean that Umm Qasr could be Kuwait's reward for offering nearly half of its territory as a springboard for a U.S. attack.

Umm Qasr, however, may not be formally attached to Kuwait because of the Anglo-American pledge not to partition Iraq after the war. But a significant Kuwaiti presence backed by U.S. and British military power at the head of the Shatt al Arab can now be expected. Kuwait's rising influence at the head of the Persian Gulf could be a development of far reaching consequences, as it could, with U.S. and British backing, emerge as a strategic rival to Iran.

There are also early indications that the British may be allowed to retain a military presence in and around Basra, once the southern Iraqi city falls. If that happens, it would be the first time since the Suez crisis of 1956 that the British would be able to establish a foothold east of the Suez Canal.

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