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Cakewalk or Stalingrad?

Byline: The Register-Guard

Some supporters of military action against Iraq have already celebrated victory in one war and are looking ahead to the next. Columnist Gwynne Dyer reports that during the first days of the war, a sure-fire applause line at Washington, D.C., parties was "Wimps go to Baghdad - real men go to Tehran." Such rhetorical swagger arose from a confidence that Saddam Hussein's regime would quickly crumble, Iraqis would welcome invading soldiers as liberators and the way would be open to remaking the political landscape of the Middle East.

It hasn't worked out that way, and no one should have expected that it would. In a world where even a routine traffic stop can yield nasty surprises, it ought to be well understood that war never follows a predictable path. The worst sandstorm in decades slowed American and British troops' advance. Resistance in cities behind the front lines continues, complicating the daunting challenge of keeping the troops supplied. Many Iraqis perceive not liberation, but occupation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, attempting to dampen high expectations, warned that the war is closer to its beginning than its end.

Because victory hasn't come as quickly as optimists predicted, the pessimists are starting to say it may not come at all. Saddam Hussein appears to have survived, and his best forces are concentrated in and around Baghdad. He can be presumed to have a few deadly tricks up his sleeve. The prospect of urban warfare - or, in the alternative, a prolonged siege - has caused a shift in comparisons: from Kuwait in 1991, which saw a relatively easy allied victory, to Stalingrad in 1941, when the Soviet Union withstood an invasion by superior German forces hampered by weather and long supply lines.

If Americans should be skeptical of predictions of quick and painless triumph, however, they should also distrust warnings of an apocalypse. American soldiers have been killed, injured and captured, and each is a cause for mourning - but the numbers are quite low for an operation involving more than a quarter million troops. The bombardment of Baghdad and other targets has been intense, providing cause for anger at the invading force - but mass civilian casualties have not resulted. The war is not even two weeks old - a short time even by the modern standard of wars in Kuwait, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The 24-hour news coverage of the war, complete with live broadcasts from reporters in the field, fosters the illusion that it's possible to know what's going on inside Iraq. But much cannot be seen, and much that can be seen is easily misunderstood. The whole story of the Iraq war won't be known for some time, and its consequences won't become clear until long after the shooting stops. As the deadly business of fighting goes on, people need to be patient and skeptical - hoping for the best, bracing for the worst and understanding that the actual result is likely to be somewhere in between.
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Title Annotation:War has a way of confounding expectations; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 29, 2003
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