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Friday, March 28

Coalition troops seek to reclaim momentum

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The looming U.S. attack against positions south of Baghdad defended by the Republican Guard's elite Medina Division has two objectives: crack Iraq's most tenacious troops and take back some of the momentum lost over the last week.

For the last several days, armored coalition units have been positioning 50 miles south of Baghdad for what is expected to be the first major ground assault against Saddam Hussein's most loyal troops.

The hope is that the Medina Division can be smashed before retreating to Baghdad where coalition forces potentially face a brutal urban battle that could drag on for weeks.

The southern assault also has important implications on the morale front.Despite relatively few casualties and a rapid advance south-to-north through Iraq, the coalition war plan is suffering at the hands of critics who claim that it's not going as quickly or smoothly as some Bush administration hawks predicted.

``Right now the momentum is feeding Saddam,'' said Ken Pollack, former CIA analyst and author of ``The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.'' ``The important task now is to seize it back quickly.''

Small but intense attacks by Iraqi militia forces in the south have confounded war planners and forced some British and American units to peel off and engage them while the ``shock and awe'' air campaign has not broken the Iraqi resolve to fight the way Pentagon officials had hoped.

The week-old ground campaign thus far has covered more than 250 miles of often-hostile Iraqi desert and now awaits orders to move against the Republican Guard.

Pentagon war planners and President Bush made great efforts Friday to portray the campaign as successful, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledging that ``we're closer to the beginning than the end.''

Speaking at the White House, the president told a group of veterans ``the regime that once terrorized all of Iraq now controls only a small portion of that country.''

Early problems

Difficulties for the Bush administration began just a few days into the ground campaign.

Oddly, they came not from Saddam's toughest troops, but from an obscure militia now infamously known as the Fedayeen Saddam.

This plainclothes guerrilla group has had modest success attacking vulnerable U.S. supply lines, forcing some of the units racing north toward Baghdad to stop and engage them in small but occasionally intense skirmishes.

``Nuisance is a good way to describe these attacks,'' said retired Gen. Thomas Rhame, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War.

Rumsfeld brushed aside allegations that strategists miscalculated the militia forces, claiming that the war plan is on schedule and that the Fedayeen forces are being handily beaten wherever they're encountered.

``We're one week into this,'' he said. ``It's a bit early for history to be written.''

Visiting Camp David on Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the media to be more aware of the fact that wars never go as planned and that the conflict is hardly dragging on.

``Because of this 24-hour media, it (the war) may seem to be going a lot longer than it is,'' he said. ``But our task is not set by time, it's set by the nature of the job.''

Some analysts suggest that the U.S. forces have moved too far too fast, and need more armored units to protect supply lines, which will be vital in the coming siege of Baghdad.

"Forces increase in the country every minute and every hour of every day, and that will continue," Rumsfeld said.

The Army's 20,000-soldier 4th Infantry Division is expected to start moving north from Kuwait soon while elements of the 2nd Armored Cavalry are expected to deploy with light but heavily armed Humvees possibly to patrol supply lines.

Currently, there are about 90,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq.

Battling the guard

The Bush administration is clearly eager to turn the tide of public perception with a decisive victory over the 10,000-man Medina Division with what is expected to be some of the most intense use of air and ground power together the war has yet seen.

The Medina Division has withdrawn to dug-in positions south of Baghdad, where the vegetation of the Euphrates Valley will provide vexing cover from high-flying coalition air support.

The Medina Division distinguished itself as one of Iraq's fiercest units in 1986 defending the southern port city of Basra from Iranian forces after they invaded the Al Faw peninsula.

Coalition forces may also have to take on the Republican Guard's vaunted Nebuchadnezzar Division north of Baghdad and the Hammurabi Division to the west.