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Bypass blitz raises rearguard fears

Washington, March 25 (Reuters): US commander Gen Tommy Franks is electing to bypass some Iraqi forces and not occupy key cities in the dash to Baghdad, raising questions about leaving behind dangerous enemy fighters and chaos in urban areas in the wake of his advancing troops.

Military analysts today said Franks, the head of US Central Command, may be taking unnecessary risks in the strategy he is employing, including stretching supply lines, allowing concentrations of enemy forces in the rear of his advancing troops and using an invasion force that may be too small for the task at hand.

“The force is so light that it probably has the lowest ratio to enemy forces of any major ground campaign we’ve fielded in the last century,” said military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think-tank in Virginia. In essence, the US is attacking a dozen Iraqi divisions with two divisions of its own, he said. Divisions generally are composed of roughly 15,000 troops.

“Normally with a ground force of this size going up against a ground force the size of the Iraqis, one doesn’t prevail quickly,” said Thompson, who still foresees a decisive and swift victory for the US-led forces. “Can air power compensate for that' It’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Franks, during a briefing in Qatar on Monday, said invading US troops have moved rapidly toward the Iraqi capital and “intentionally bypassed enemy formations”, including paramilitary forces, in southern Iraq.

Iraqi forces in the rear of the advancing US troops already have drawn blood. For example, an army supply convoy that apparently took a wrong turn near the southern city of An Nasiriyah on Sunday was ambushed by irregular Iraqi forces, leaving 12 US soldiers missing. Videotape of five of them being interrogated was shown on Iraqi state television, along with grisly footage of corpses, apparently those of the other missing Americans.

Franks said: “You can expect that our clean-up operations are going to be ongoing” in the days ahead, saying Iraqi forces can be expected to“mill about to create difficulties”. “We’ll fight this on our terms.”

Analysts said the strategy requires the invading troops arriving in Baghdad to be at the end of a 480-km supply line. “We’re watching the flanks with the full realisation that we are stretched out somewhat,” said retired US Rear Adm Stephen Baker of the Center for Defense Information, who played a key role in the 1991 Gulf War. “The vulnerability of supply lines has been looked at with extreme intensity.”

Another consequence of electing not to occupy cities and towns left in the rear of the advancing army is the possibility of civil unrest, looting and strife in those areas.

A US defence official, who asked not to be identified, said American forces can adequately control some of these areas without actually occupying them. “There may be some populated areas where we’re not interested in going street to street, building to building,” the official said.

Thompson said one reason for not occupying each and every city and town on the route to Baghdad is avoiding draining away forces needed for more critical battles ahead. He said there may be a breakdown in civil authority once invading forces pass through an Iraqi city or town.

“I think the US would welcome a popular uprising in the wake of its forces against Saddam’s people. But I doubt that was factored into the plan because Saddam’s people are so heavily armed that it could result in a civilian massacre,” Thompson said.

Asked whether US opted not to occupy these places deliberately to allow ordinary Iraqis to rise up and exact revenge on Saddam’s local representatives, the official said: “Not at all. It’s in keeping focused on what the military objectives are (advancing on Baghdad).”

He said follow-on forces later may be assigned the task of providing security in these places.

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