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Saturday, March 29

Analysis - Iraqis exploiting Americans' reluctance to engage civilian targets

By Sean D. Naylor | Army Times

CENTRAL IRAQ -- Iraq’s unexpectedly intense resistance to coalition troops shows the Iraqis have learned lessons from their overwhelming defeat in the 1991 Gulf war and have closely observed the small wars and peacekeeping operations the U.S. military has conducted since then.

One overriding impression left on U.S. troops by the first week's combat is that the Iraqis have developed an elaborate set of "dirty" tactics to capitalize on Americans' reluctance to endanger civilian lives. According to troops here, Iraqi forces have: - Forced women and children to act as human shields in buildings occupied by Iraqi troops.

- Located headquarters in schools, day care facilities and, in one case in An Nasiriyah, a children's hospital. More than one Iraqi prisoner of war has told American troops they do not need to worry about bombing schools because the schools have all been turned over to Iraqi militia forces.

- Lured U.S. forces into an ambush by pretending to surrender.

- Positioned artillery in residential areas so that even when radar systems locate it, U.S. commanders won't pummel it.

- Used ambulances with the Red Crescent symbol - the equivalent of the Red Cross - as personnel carriers, ferrying reinforcements to Iraqi positions under the noses of U.S. troops.

- Worn U.S. uniforms.

- Forced women and children to retrieve dead Iraqi troops and their weapons.

- Forced Iraqi civilian men and regular soldiers to fight by threatening to kill them and their families if they refused.

The Iraqi troops using these tactics are, for the most part, not regular army soldiers, said Army Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. Rather than rely on his regular soldiers, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has pushed up to 30,000 of his most loyal paramilitary troops south from Baghdad into the towns and cities of southern Iraq, Blount said.

U.S. leaders had expected those troops to remain in Baghdad to protect Saddam's regime.

"But what they have done is push 2,000 or 3,000 fighters out to each of the communities here in the south, partly to keep the communities secure and to keep the Shi'ites from having an uprising, but also to fight us," Blount said.

He said the paramilitary troops also have forced local residents to fight.

"They've gone out and dug positions in front of most of the houses and given them weapons and told them to fight or their families would be killed," said Blount, who based his comments on accounts from several Iraqi POWs.

In As Samawah alone, militia members executed about 40 people who refused to comply, Blount said.

Continuous Iraqi assaults

Militia members also have shown tactical aptitude and courage that American officers were not expecting. They have launched "prepared, controlled ambushes out in the middle of nowhere" and have shown "tenacity and willingness to fight," Blount said.

``Even under very severe conditions like the sandstorms we were having here for 48 hours, they continued to attack us," he said. "It's really an intense conflict."

Blount said the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Army Lt. Col. Terry Ferrell, has seen the fiercest combat.

"By no means do they see that tank and try to run away," Ferrell said of the irregulars. "They see that tank and try to shoot it with an AK-47."

Col. David Perkins, commander of the division's 3rd Brigade, said Iraqi paramilitaries even rammed one of his Bradley fighting vehicles with a bus.

The militia forces do not lack for weapons. They have used 82 mm mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, anti-aircraft cannons, and automatic weapons mounted on pick-up trucks, like the "technicals" driven by the Somali guerrillas who fought U.S. troops in 1993 and 1994.

"We've destroyed thousands of weapons," Blount said. ``There were so many weapons on the field, so many people fighting in these areas where we really didn't expect much contact."

Iraqi commanders also have displayed more tactical skill than during the 1991 Gulf war, when their mechanized forces sat in the desert and waited for the coalition forces to strike.

This time, while the bulk of the Republican Guard's heavy force has remained around Baghdad, Iraqi leaders have used mixed columns of tracked vehicles and pick-ups to reinforce Al Hillah, An Najaf and other cities. They usually choose to make these moves during sandstorms, showing they understand the vulnerabilities of U.S. aerial reconnaissance.

"The weather prevented UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) flights, even helicopters," Blount said.

He added that the United States was unable to put up aerial reconnaissance - "probably one of our primary sources of intelligence" - for 48 hours.

‘Ruthless’ strategies

U.S. military leaders here had warned their troops not to expect an easy fight. But even they have been shocked at Iraqi militia members’ lack of regard for rules of engagement.

"These are ruthless people," Ferrell said.

Near An Nasiriyah, for example, an Iraqi unit feigned surrender to Marines, then opened fire on them. The ambush last Sunday killed nine Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. At least 40 Marines were wounded.

American officers say they are determined not to allow themselves to be dragged into a dirty war.

"We will fight fairly, we will fight honestly and we will abide by the laws of land warfare," Ferrell told his cavalry troop commanders.

The determination to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage imposes restraints on how troops fight, however.

"We've got a lot of combat power here, but we can't bring it to bear," said Capt. Sean McManus, acting intelligence officer for the cavalry squadron. "They know we don't want to destroy schools, mosques and so forth, and they're going to use that against us."

Week's end found militia members fortifying their positions in the cities of As Samawah, An Najaf and Al Hillah.

"They've sandbagged the tops of the buildings, and go from building to building shooting at us," Perkins said.

As a result, U.S. commanders must make a choice they did not anticipate: Drive on to engage the Republican Guard divisions surrounding Baghdad and leave pockets of resistance behind, threatening coalition supply lines, or destroy the militia forces in potentially costly urban battles.

Asked how he intended to deal with the hard-core fighters that remain in each city, Blount said: "None of the plans calls for them to be there when it's over. So we're not going to leave them there."