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Daily News (New York) March 27, 2003

Sneak Attacks Force A Change In U.S. Plans

By Tracy Connor

Iraq has sprung surprise tactics on the allies by harassing the more-than-200-mile-long supply column with daring, even fanatical attacks.

The unexpected resistance already has slowed down some U.S. and British units in the south and forced field commanders to adjust their tactics.

The guerrilla forays also are responsible for many of the U.S. casualties so far - and could be an effort to drive up the death toll and sap support for the war at home.

The aggressiveness of the attacks has surprised military planners, who had expected Iraq's regular army forces to offer only perfunctory resistance.

The degree of resistance - coupled with treacherous weather and insecure supply lines - has some defense officials now predicting the war may take months to end instead of weeks. The officials also told The Washington Post that considerably more firepower will need to be brought into the fight to bring down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Planners thought Saddam would keep his forces arrayed around Baghdad for an all-out fight when the allies reached the capital.

Instead, Iraq has taken advantage of U.S. plans to bypass urban centers between Kuwait and Baghdad and sent the fedayeen and guerrilla squads to carry out fierce, fanatical offensives at Basra, Nassiriya and Najaf, and numerous small-scale ambushes against a supply line that extends all the way to Kuwait and is so dense that it causes traffic jams.

These assaults have been largely futile. There was a report of one civilian vehicle that headed straight for a U.S. tank, only to be run over by the 70-ton tank without a shot being fired.

Nevertheless, coalition commanders have been forced to alter their plans to deal with the fedayeen.

"We're going into a hunting mode right now," said Marine Lt. Col. B. T. McCoy. "We're going to start hunting down instead of letting them take the cheap shots."

Peter Singer, a scholar with the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said that the American strategy shifts so far were "along the margins."

"I think they [U.S. military officials] were hoping to bypass a number of urban zones," he said.

"But it's clear they're going to do much more mopping up, because Iraqis are threatening those supply lines."

The Army put in a rush request for a cavalry squadron, armored Humvees and a helicopter reconnaissance squadron to the war zone to provide extra security along supply lines.

The 3rd Infantry Division was forced to switch gears and encircle Najaf yesterday after enemy forces repeatedly attacked the division.

And it appears that the British will now have to enter Basra, where a column of Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers came under heavy U.S. artillery fire.

The fighting in Basra has delayed shipments of humanitarian aid that could help blunt international criticism of the war.

Despite the setbacks, military analysts said the U.S. drive to Baghdad has not been significantly derailed.

"The supplies are getting through. We keep seeing pictures of supply trucks and tankers," said Dan Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, a military think tank. "And in the last two days, I haven't heard of any successful attack on any U.S. column." Puzzling moves Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed the convoy attacks as "potshots" yesterday during a briefing for members of Congress, according to Capitol Hill sources.

Some of the Iraqis' other maneuvers have puzzled planners. A column of tanks scooted out of Basra yesterday. Its destination was uncertain, but it put the convoy at the mercy of pursuing planes and helicopters.

There also was uncertainty about reports of a large column of vehicles heading south out of Baghdad.

Some officials said there were irregulars heading out to join the fight against the convoys, while others said tanks were repositioning themselves under the cover of a severe sandstorm.

If the Iraqis were planning to confront American troops in the desert, military analysts were optimistic about the allies' ability to crush them.

"If these Iraqis want to get all bunched up in one place where it's easier to blow them up, that's just fine," said John Pike, director of Global Security.

Pike said the end of a ferocious sandstorm that grounded war planes and slowed the allied advance will let the U.S. plot its next move.

"The weather forecast for Thursday morning in Baghdad is plenty of sun - so CENTCOM is going to get a look at the scoreboard and decide whether they want to launch the mother of all river crossings or whether they want to give it another day or two," he said.

GRAPHIC: JOE RAEDLE GETTY IMAGES ON A MISSION Mural of a plane crashing into a building can be seen in background as Marines from Task Force Tarawa search for enemy troops at an Iraqi military headquarters in Nassiriya yesterday.

Copyright 2003, Daily News, L.P.