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Little wars by the river of fire sap superpower

Kuwait-Iraq border, March 31: At the British Army’s divisional camp in north Kuwait, there is news that an English-speaking Iraqi woman in Basra had “crossed the line” and was telling officers to keep probing.

The British forces have stopped short of the Basra suburb of Al Zubayr for over a week now. The artillery keeps bombarding the city’s outskirts. The coalition force is fighting to capture Iraq’s second-largest city with a combination of military tactics, mobile attacks and incitement to revolt.

“She has been telling us that the people want confidence,” Colonel Chris Vernon says. “They want the confidence that they will not be let down like in 1991 when Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed the Shia revolt.”

West of Basra, in the South Rumaila Oilfields where a battalion of the British Royal Irish is securing the wellheads, Lieutenant James Mitchell says they have been combing the villages, not that there are many here in this expanse of scrubland.

“There is essentially a huge language barrier,” said Mitchell. “We’re kind of sorting that out now.”

At Safwan, the first Iraqi settlement just across the border through which the 3rd Mechanised Infantry went in the dash to the periphery of Baghdad, there have been retribution killings. Villagers suspected to have helped the Americans with intelligence have been “taken out” by Iraqis loyal to the regime.

At An Nasiriyah, the crucial crossroads on the Euphrates in central Iraq, a unit of the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force has been detailed to “cleanse” villages from where Iraqi irregulars carry out attacks on the road to “ambush alley”. Iraqi forces are seeking to extend the “alley” from the twin bridges on the Euphrates to Al Kut on the Tigris.

Almost the entire British army component in the coalition land forces has been tied down in the south, in Basra province. “Essentially, we are launching counter-insurgency operations on a military platform,” says Vernon.

Minus the incessant bombarding of Baghdad, the battles in Operation Iraqi Freedom are more reminiscent of Kashmir and Chechnya than the Mesopotamian wars waged for centuries by the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Ottomans.

The front line — if that is what it can be called — is a small arc 100 km south-southwest of Baghdad. But the Euphrates is the river of fire. Along its banks and right through to Basra, the coalition forces and the Iraqis are engaged in combats that are little wars in themselves.

Indeed, the biggest miscalculation of the coalition’s invasion could be in the christening of the war itself. There are few signs that the Iraqi populace has been crying freedom at the sight of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. It is only to the north of Baghdad, north of the Kirkuk and Mosul oilfields and the highlands, that the coalition forces have enough support from the Kurds to bolster military strength.

The upshot of this is an inevitable phase of consolidation that has been erroneously described as an “operational pause”. Most modern wars, even the last one on medieval Afghanistan (that continues till this day), have gone through such phases of mid-course correction.

The train of convoys that passes through this border checkpost into Iraq bears out that the coalition command is desperately short of men and munitions despite the long build-up. They are a testimony to the Iraqi resistance, to its ability to create little wars to take on the big one. The big one has the technology and the force, the little one its home territory.

The arithmetic of the war in Iraq is at the moment against the invading army. The Republican Guard is estimated to be about 3.5 lakh strong. The coalition forces in Iraq number 90,000.

This does not leave the coalition forces with figures of a good teeth-to-tail ratio. (“Teeth to tail” is military jargon for number of troops in combat to number of troops guarding the rear and giving supplies.) Another miscalculation made, probably, on the assumption that close-air support and high-tech warfare will see the coalition through.

Add to this the shortage in supplies. A Japanese journalist embedded with a Marines unit sent a dispatch and told his colleague of the Asahi Shimbun in Kuwait that the soldiers were down to having just one meal a day.

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