We still cannot be sure of the course or outcome of this peculiar conflict

05 April 2003

Wars often have their phoney phases, but what is strange about this one is that no one can be sure whether it is about to begin or about to end.

Unprecedented media access to the troops on one side of the conflict and to the places where the war is being fought means that we know everything about this war, and yet we seem to know almost nothing about what is really happening. With no reporters embedded in Saddam's Republican Guard, the curious feature of this most-televised of wars has been the invisibility of the Iraqi forces.

The war has so far consisted only of skirmishes, not battles. The advance on Baghdad has not been a military offensive so much as an exercise in long-distance driving on what seem to be remarkably well-maintained and signposted roads.

Some of Saddam Hussein's tactics seem obvious at least, with the benefit of two weeks' hindsight. Faced with the vast technological superiority of the Allies and their total control of the air, he has avoided confrontation out in the open and kept his troops hidden among civilians in the cities. Thus he has conceded as much desert as the Allies want to take, putting up some resistance to make it difficult for the US forces to cross the Tigris or to secure their supply lines while reserving most of his forces for urban warfare.

Some tank units have been exposed around Baghdad, and have been swiftly destroyed from the air, prompting speculation that Saddam was happy to dispose of potentially disloyal troops.

Harder to explain, however, has been the fact that the Iraqi forces have failed to blow up bridges to try to put obstacles in the way of the advancing US convoys.

We still do not know, therefore, whether the US push into Baghdad or the British drive into the second city, Basra will meet fierce and bloody resistance or finally prompt the collapse of the regime that was half-expected on day one.

Iraqi nationalism is the intangible factor, as the distinguished historian Norman Davies pointed out on these pages yesterday. The battle for Baghdad will probably be nothing like two of the most recent examples of low-casualty wars fought by American-led coalitions, in Kuwait and Kosovo. In both cases, the occupying forces did not believe that they were fighting to defend their homeland.

Although thousands of civilians are now on the move out of the Iraqi capital, it is telling that there have been so few refugees trying to leave the country. Reporters sent to the Jordanian border to meet them found themselves interviewing people going the other way, saying they wanted to fight for Iraq under Saddam.

The 24-hour news coverage from the very cockpit of the conflict provides the illusion of an open war, yet the endless television pictures cannot tell us what we need to know, which is what is going on in the minds of Saddam, his commanders and his soldiers.

We must hope that Saddam has already gone and that the edifice of his totalitarian rule is on the point of collapse; but we should fear and prepare for the worst. Either way, getting a grip on the aid operation through Umm Qasr is obviously a priority. Either way, the campaign that matters is not and has never been about smart weapons, overwhelming force or military strategy. It is about convincing the Iraqi people that they will regain national dignity only by getting rid of Saddam and the Baath party and using the power of American imperialism to secure control over their own destiny.

That was always going to be a difficult campaign far harder even than street-by-street battles to seize control of Iraq's great cities.

2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd


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