In Operation Iraqi Freedom, U.S. led coalition forces are nearing Baghdad. Now defense officials are bracing for the toughest fighting of the five-day-old war. But American promises made before the conflict all but ensured that the fighting, once it started, would be difficult.
Pentagon officials had hoped for a stroke of luck to bring the war to a close even before it began in earnest, an opening night salvo of missiles and bombs aimed at eliminating senior Iraqi leaders. But that so-called decapitation attempt apparently failed, and now coalition ground forces, backed by allied airpower, are moving ever closer to Baghdad, trying to unseat Saddam Hussein's regime the hard way.
It is perhaps an even greater challenge because the coalition is attempting to depose a leader while at the same time trying to preserve a country's infrastructure, leaving its civilian population and property untouched.
In a way, says one senior Pentagon official, coalition forces have their hands tied in much the same way that U.S. forces had theirs bound by targeting restrictions during the Vietnam War. But the Pentagon believes firmly that in the case of Iraq, it could pay long-term political benefits, not only among Iraqi civilians, but also in the Arab world as a whole.
"Our bombing is aimed at the regime of Saddam Hussein and leadership targets. We are bombing specific targets in and around Baghdad, such as the Government Control Center, the offices of the Special Security Organization and the headquarters of the Special Republican Guards and the Iraqi Intelligence Service. At the same time, we are taking extraordinary measures to protect the lives of innocent civilians," says Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. "We continue to urge the Iraqi people to stay in their homes, and we're poised at the borders to bring in large quantities of humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people, including millions of meals and medicine, when it's safe enough to do so."
A senior Pentagon official says it would be much easier for allied forces to simply come into Iraq, especially with aircraft, and bomb places like Baghdad indiscriminately with a real-life "shock and awe" campaign. But the official believes U.S. technology, tactics and training will make it possible to achieve the objectives of Operation Iraqi Freedom even with the current limitations on targeting.
Still, Iraq's regime has been given what amounts to a huge advantage. By publicly stating in advance that the coalition will not, for example, strike cultural sites, Saddam Hussein could easily hide at one along with his commanders and significant military assets.
Ironically, there has been little focus on such limitations. Instead some news reports are already suggesting that the war effort is bogging down, just because there have been coalition casualties and prisoners have been taken by the Iraqi side.
But senior defense officials like Major General Stanley McChrystal of the Pentagon's Joint Staff say isolated incidents do not accurately reflect what he calls the big picture. "One of the things a commander always has to do is make sure he sees the big picture, because it's a great tendency, as a commander war-games his plan, to expect little things to go wrong," says Mr McChrystal. "And then when they go wrong, there's a chance that you can focus on that, but if you step back and look at the bigger picture, like on this campaign, it's going superbly." But he is careful not to say just how much longer the war will last. It could be weeks or even months, other officials say. No one ever said it would be just days.