KUWAIT CITY - The southern Iraq port city of Umm Qasr was under the control of U.S. and British troops yesterday, military officials said, opening a key route for humanitarian aid that could begin arriving in about two days.
If that news sounds familiar, it might be because Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld made the same announcement Friday. That turned out to be overly optimistic. Coalition forces continued to face lightly armed but exceptionally persistent members of the ragtag fedayeen, the zealous Iraqi militia that for nearly a decade has been the brutal force behind Saddam Hussein's fist.
Yesterday, though, the battle for Umm Qasr, the first in this war to begin, appeared finally to have been the first to end. And it is likely to be the template for those to come.
The "pockets of resistance" that had prolonged the battle, military officials said, were reduced to a few straggling gunmen. Mine-sweeping vessels were called in to clear the waters leading to the city's port, helped by U.S., British and Australian divers and trained dolphins.
In the end, it was British forces, drawing heavily on their experience with urban warfare in Northern Ireland, who rid the city of all but a handful of the fedayeen, whose name means "those ready to sacrifice themselves for Saddam." The fedayeen is the scattered group that staged surrenders Sunday near the southern Iraqi cities of Basra and An Nasiriyah only to open fire on coalition troops who had offered them prisoner of war status, the only act of mercy available on a battlefield.
Military analysts had differing views of the success of the fight at Umm Qasr. There was widespread agreement, though, that it was most likely a precursor to the other battles, particularly in Basra and Nasiriyah, and perhaps in Baghdad, the prize for coalition forces.
"Umm Qasr is a microcosm of things to come in all of the [cities]," said Charles Pena, director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "What it says is that taking control of cities is a difficult task if you also have a mandate to limit civilian deaths and collateral damage."
The U.S. military had the capability of easily flattening Umm Qasar, sparing British forces the danger of containing it. But with a goal of preserving as much of Iraq as possible - both its infrastructure and civilian population - coalition forces played to their strengths, not the fedayeen's, by combining lightning commando-style strikes with psychological warfare to win the battle.
The same game plan is under way in Basra.
"We have a pretty long tradition in the British army of this type of urban fighting," said army Col. Chris Vernon, spokesman for the United Kingdom's land forces. "The British have demonstrated you can operate on your terms using a war-fighting force to pretty positive effect."
Those terms included resisting the temptation to blast heavy artillery into areas where the fedayeen were congregated and firing at British troops. For the British to attack with the firepower they had available would have likely meant large numbers of civilian casualties and extensive damage to Umm Qasr's infrastructure.
Instead, they dropped leaflets on the city and sent messages over loudspeakers, letting residents know that they had nothing to fear from coalition forces and that the only people endangering them were the Iraqi militia prolonging the fight. The British army fired at fedayeen targets on the outskirts of the city when opportunities arose without risk to civilians. They staged lightning raids, with small numbers of forces blitzing into the city, shooting dead the fedayeen and then swiftly rushing back out to their established perimeter.
Unclear last night was the degree to which residents assisted the British. Their hesitation, according to U.S. and British officials, and the reason there were no immediate mass uprisings in southern Iraq, probably stems from a fear of the fedayeen, combined with a skepticism that coalition forces will remain to protect them.
The militia, far closer to guerrillas than soldiers, crushed Shiite Muslims in the area of Umm Qasr and northward to central Iraq after coalition forces urged them to rise up in the 1991 gulf war, only to abandon them to slaughter.
Military officials say they believe that fedayeen members could number up to 40,000, and that many of them were dispatched from Baghdad in the weeks leading to the war to keep civilians under control and soldiers from surrendering. They are considered among the Iraqis most loyal to Hussein, including the Republican Guard, and are made up in part by criminals who were freed on the condition they serve.
"The lack of uprising is understandable, given the events of 1991," Vernon said. "A key part of what we have to do is gain their confidence. It's a major feature of our campaign."
Merely isolating the fighters in Umm Qasr was not an option. The city comprises only about 4,000 people, but because it is the only deep-water port in Iraq, its military strategic importance is immense for resupplying the military line to Baghdad and delivering humanitarian aid to Iraqis already in dire need.
Military officials said the port could open tomorrow or Friday.
A British ship will move in, under current plans, and water, medicine and food will be unloaded.
Basra is in desperate need of water, its supply having been cut off since Sunday. For that reason, British troops outside Basra to its south and west will work to rid it of the 1,000 fedayeen members they believe are inside the city who have aligned with an unknown number of regular army troops.
"When they take the coalition on in open ground, they seriously lose," Vernon said of both the Iraqi militia and the army. "So what do they do? They pull back to Basra."
Yesterday, British troops blitzed Basra briefly, killed about 20 fedayeen, snatched a high-ranking Baath party official and rushed back to their lines, Vernon said. Leaflets, as in Umm Qasr, were being dropped, and messages were blaring over loudspeakers.
Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, said he thought the battle for Umm Qasr went as well as it could given the makeup of the military force, but he said that urban battles should be fought with more infantrymen than was available to the coalition forces.
"They talk of shock and awe, but they're talking about the air war, and what's needed is the equivalent on the field itself," he said. "We have overwhelming strength in the air but not enough on the ground. We, of course, want to fight a huge air war in the open, but the opposition wants to fight in the cities. So that's where the fighting will be. Don't think we won't see this again in Baghdad."