WASHINGTON - The United States is pursuing a military strategy that combines overwhelming and precise firepower, rapid armored movement and psychological operations in an effort to quickly oust Saddam Hussein while greatly limiting Iraqi civilian casualties.
The punishing bombing campaign that began yesterday will be "on a scope and scale that makes clear to Iraqis that he and his regime are finished," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday.
But he also noted that American high-tech weaponry and precise targeting have been paired in a "humane effort" to topple the Iraqi leader.
U.S. and British armored troops are now surging across the Iraqi desert to take over oil fields before Hussein's forces can set fire to them, while special operations forces are seizing airfields in Iraq's western desert to prevent Iraqi forces from widening the war by launching Scud missiles into Israel.
U.S. Marines quickly seized the southern Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr and hope soon to begin the flow of humanitarian supplies, officials said. Captured airfields will let American forces bring in soldiers and arms, as well as food and medicine.
Meanwhile, American airborne and helicopter forces based in Kuwait are expected to open up a northern front in Iraq soon, leaving Hussein facing a pincer movement.
All the while, Rumsfeld's pronouncements are being beamed in Arabic into Iraq by U.S. psychological operations troops flying inside a specially equipped C-130 aircraft. The mantra to Iraqi soldiers: Do not obey Hussein's orders. To Iraqi citizens: Your liberators are on the way.
When the attacks began Wednesday night, Bush administration officials thought they got lucky: Fresh intelligence pointed to Hussein and his top military leaders gathered in a compound. But the subsequent airstrike did not lead to the quick collapse of the regime.
War as predicted
As a result, the Pentagon is employing the strategy it had telegraphed to reporters for months: A withering bombing campaign to cut off Hussein from his forces, eliminate any resistance and convince the Iraqi people that regime change is at hand.
This strategy carries risk, though less in a tactical, military way and more in a global, 24-hour news perception way. Dead Iraqi civilians will further enrage Muslims and swell the worldwide protests that continue to dog Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As televised explosions lighted up the night sky in Baghdad yesterday, Rumsfeld bristled when he saw TV analysts likening the air attack to the bombardments carried out by the allies against Germany and Japan during World War II.
With anti-American sentiment already at a fever pitch in the Middle East, the last images the Pentagon wants to evoke are the fire-bombings of Dresden or Tokyo.
"The comparison is unfortunate and inaccurate," a grim Rumsfeld told reporters.
"Every single target has been analyzed," Rumsfeld added, "and the weapon has been carefully selected, and the direction in which the weapon is delivered has been carefully examined, and the time of day when there is the greatest prospect of minimizing any innocent lives."
The Pentagon has mounted what military officers say is an unprecedented effort to avoid civilian casualties. Hussein, for his part, appears eager for a world outcry about dead innocents. He has placed "human shields" in front of likely attack sites and put weaponry and communications facilities in civilian neighborhoods, U.S. officials say.
A 'note of caution'
Amnesty International said yesterday that it was seeking "urgent clarification" from U.S. and British leaders about measures being taken to protect civilians as the bombing campaign intensified.
"The question is whether this strategy collides with their obligation to protect civilians," said Alistair Hodgett, a spokesman for the international humanitarian group. "This campaign may result in disproportionate civilian casualties. We're really just sending a note of caution. We still need to fight a clean war, even if our opponent does not."
It is uncertain how many Iraqi civilians have been killed or injured in the war so far, although the Arab language satellite TV station Al-Jazeera has reported that two civilians were killed and more than two dozen were injured on the first day.
Air Force Col. Gary Crowder told reporters earlier this week that the Pentagon has created computer software and sophisticated modeling that can better determine the angle for attack that would cause the least amount of collateral damage. Officials also try to use smaller bombs that would still achieve the same results with less damage.
Crowder also said that in some cases targets are abandoned because hitting them would cause too many civilian casualties.
In the Kosovo air campaign, the allied planners decided to shut down the Yugoslav electrical power system. Instead of attacking the power station and causing excessive casualties, they bombed a few 250-foot power line poles to achieve the same effect.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank, said what impresses him when he sees the pictures of Baghdad is that the lights are still on, the radios are still playing and the water pressure is still adequate.
"Rumsfeld is right," he said. "There's never been a bombing campaign like this before."