The US Faces a Terrible Choice - Start Killing Civilians or Hand the Initiative to Saddam

By Oborne, Peter | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

The US Faces a Terrible Choice - Start Killing Civilians or Hand the Initiative to Saddam


Oborne, Peter, The Spectator


Lenin remarked that there were decades in which history would stand still, and weeks when it would move forward by a decade. This is one of those terrible weeks when history is on the march. At this stage it is impossible to discern with any assurance the outcome of the war. But so much is already clear: coalition planners have miscalculated.

It was assumed in both Washington and London that the Iraqis would not resist with anything like the skill and ferocity that they have shown so far. It was taken for granted that Saddam, hated by his own people, would be brought down amid a series of popular uprisings. British ministers spoke in private of a war that `won't be over in days but won't last much more than a week either'. Gordon Brown's Budget, which is now taking on the air of a very interesting event indeed, was set back to 9 April, by which time it was supposed that hostilities would have ceased. That supposition now looks unrealistic.

This miscalculation has created a massive problem. Troops, now drained and exhausted after a week's fighting, have been detained en route far longer than expected. Coalition commanders have been forced to bring in reinforcements: a sure sign that they have been disconcerted by events. The US has already ordered three back-up divisions to the battle zone, but they will take two weeks to arrive. No orders have gone out for fresh British troops. One senior general says that the cupboard is bare.

But there has been no official recognition that circumstances have changed. On Tuesday the Prime Minister gave a press conference in which he discussed plans to travel to the Camp David summit. Tony Blair portrayed this as almost routine, emphasising that the agenda would be driven by mopping-up operations, humanitarian matters, mending fences with Europe, dealing with post-Saddam Iraq, etc. The Prime Minister's account of events can only be regarded as a fantasy.

Even within the terms of his own bland analysis of events, there was a huge conceptual hole. Sketching out a future for postwar Iraq means involving the United Nations. But it is impossible for the UN to begin to address the issue when most of its members take the view that a recognised government is already in place. Blair and Bush were not really meeting to discuss the postwar situation. Had the war been going according to plan, there would have been no need for the Camp David event.

The two leaders were meeting to discuss the strategic ramifications of this unexpected Iraqi resistance. There is less likelihood now that coalition forces, as was fondly hoped at the outset of the war, will be greeted as liberating heroes if they enter Baghdad. On the contrary, they may be forced to take the city street by street. British forces, with their 30-year history in Northern Ireland, have some experience of this kind of dangerous and bloody warfare; the Americans very little. In any case, taking Baghdad would be an immeasurably more deadly business than patrolling South Armagh. It is too early to say, but street battles could involve many thousands of coalition deaths.

Military doctrine is clear on one point: if you are going to enter a hostile city, flatten it. …

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