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Last Updated:  Sunday, 30 March, 2003, 22:26 GMT 23:26 UK
Comment: The 'three-block' war
The BBC's Jonathan Marcus
By Jonathan Marcus
BBC defence correspondent at US Central Command, Qatar

This is the second in a regular series of columns by our defence correspondent in Qatar, the location of the US Central Command Headquarters:

Just a few years ago at the Pentagon I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with the then commandant of the US Marine Corps, General Charles "Chuck" Krulak.

He was a short, thick-set man with bull-neck and lively eyes. His task, he said, was to prepare the Marine Corps for a new form of combat.

A US marine takes aim from a trench outside Baghdad
High-intensity warfare against trained, well-equipped enemy
Fighting guerrilla-style forces
Peacekeeping and aid handouts
He described it as "the three-block war".

The US marines, he argued, were destined to fight more and more in urban areas.

He said that in one city block, his marines might be engaged in high-intensity warfare against a well-trained and well-equipped enemy.

In another, they might be up against light, irregular forces fighting a guerrilla-style campaign.

In yet another area, he concluded, his marines might be peace-keeping and distributing humanitarian aid.

Three city blocks and three very different types of military activity - hence the "three-block war".

Modern weaponry

Well, the US military - including thousands of marines - is now engaged in a "three-block war" on a grand scale.

South-east of Baghdad, US mechanised and marine units are preparing to launch an offensive against the Iraqi Republican Guard divisions defending the capital.

This is high-intensity manoeuvre warfare using all of the most modern weaponry in the US arsenal.

But all the way back down their lines of communication towards the Kuwaiti border there is another sort of war going on.

It is an urban battle against irregular forces loyal to Saddam Hussein's regime.

A US marine looks on while civilians take water
Civilians may have to be treated as potential enemies
In towns like Nasiriya and Najaf an ugly struggle is underway where the local population are the main losers, whoever wins.

The Iraqi decision to fight this war by unorthodox means has dramatically increased the danger to its own citizens.

This is not a moral judgement about the methods used. It is just a simple fact.

US soldiers and marines are going to be wary of all civilians or vehicles approaching them.

And there is a danger that in the adrenalin rush of combat they may shoot first and ask questions later.

That, of course, is exactly what the Iraqi authorities hope will happen.

Hasty start?

Either way this anti-guerrilla struggle does not just harass US lines of supply - soldiers, after all, can take care of themselves.

It significantly delays any attempt to bring up humanitarian relief and to restore any sense of normality to the areas through which US troops have passed.

It is impossible to escape the impression that this war began under circumstances that were not quite of the commander's choosing.

For one thing there was the opportunistic preliminary strike against leadership targets in Baghdad - seemingly an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein himself.

Then there was General Tommy Franks' strong hint at Sunday's briefing that there were signs that the Iraqis were getting ready to burn the southern oil fields that may have forced the coalition's hand.

It is also clear that too much time was spent allowing the 4th Infantry Division's equipment to bob around in the eastern Mediterranean.

It should have been ordered to Kuwait much earlier.

The delay is suggestive. It is an indication of how important that strong thrust from the north really was to the original war plan.


Reporting of this war seems to swing from feast to famine, from imminent victory to the spectre of defeat.

Much of this is nonsense. There have been solid military achievements by US and UK forces.

A US marine wears a gas mask near Nasiriya
A victory may yet be months away for coalition forces
And equally the Iraqi regime has played its limited hand with some skill, albeit at the risk of turning this into a very unpleasant fight.

That of course is the central Iraqi goal. Saddam Hussein and his generals may believe that if they can draw out the conflict and inflict sufficient casualties, the US and British appetite for this war will disappear.

That is probably a mistaken strategy. But there could still be bumpy days ahead.

Collapse still possible

This could be a lengthy conflict - weeks certainly - or a small number of months.

But since so little of the military mosaic is visible there is always the chance of a sudden and rapid Iraqi collapse.

That is unlikely to happen until the Republican Guard is comprehensively beaten.

And that may take time and the arrival of additional American forces.

It is impossible to judge the nature of this conflict by its first 10 days.

But, like it or not, for the time being at any rate, General Franks has a "three-block" war to fight, and not all of it is on his own terms.

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