Day Eleven: Stalled on road to Baghdad as fears grow that this war is not going to plan

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When is a pause not a pause? A great debate was joined yesterday over just what has happened to the advance on Baghdad. Has it faltered – or merely paused for some tactical consolidation?

When is a pause not a pause? A great debate was joined yesterday over just what has happened to the advance on Baghdad. Has it faltered ­ or merely paused for some tactical consolidation?

Day Eleven of the conflict was dominated by attempts by politicians and generals to wrestle with the public sense that the war strategy is starting to unravel. Gloomy talk was heard in the United States about the fighting lasting six months or more. The spectre of Vietnam began to raise its unwelcome head.

Certainly it became increasingly clear yesterday that this is not the kind of war which its advocates had predicted. Things were not going to plan in any sense.

On the battlefield, troops were coming to terms with the implications of Saturday's suicide-bomb attack in which four American soldiers died when a man blew himself up at a military checkpoint near the Shia holy city of Najaf. At a Pentagon news conference, Major-General Stanley McChrystal said: "We're very concerned about it. It looks and feels like terrorism."

The Iraqis were delighted at the response. Their morning press conferences yesterday did not restrict themselves to the usual business of claim and counter-claim. A declaration that Iraq had shot down two US helicopters was made ­ denied by the Pentagon ­ but Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan also adopted a tone more appropriate to an ayatollah than an official of a secular state. He said that the bomber ­ posthumously promoted to colonel by Saddam Hussein, and awarded the Mother of All Battles medal ­ had martyred himself through this "spiritual" action.

"This is just the beginning," Mr Ramadan told a Baghdad news conference. "You'll hear more pleasant news later." Officials said 4,000 martyr bombers were lined up. Later, news came that a truck had driven into a group of US soldiers at Camp Udairi military base in Kuwait; between 10 and 15 were injured.

"It's just a reminder there's some very desperate people out there and we've go to be on our toes," said the Chairman of of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, with much understatement. "I think we can adjust our tactics and techniques to overcome that threat."

Already yesterday new measures were being put in place amid reports of other deception attacks involving Iraqi troops launching attacks from ambulances, dressed as medics or after pretending to surrender. At roadblocks, civilians were being asked to get out of their cars some distance from any military personnel. The problem is that regarding every woman on a donkey as a potential threat from now on is not likely to do much in the battle for Iraqi hearts and minds.

That has implications at an international level, as the former United Nations secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali pointed out. He issued a warning that the conflict was strengthening Islamic fundamentalism. "This war corresponds to the dialectic of the fundamentalist, who says there is a crusade against the Islamic world," he said, urging the international community to try to prevent war spreading across the Middle East.

As if in confirmation of his analysis, an Islamist blew himself up in Israel yesterday, at a crowded pedestrian mall in the coastal town of Netanya, killing himself and wounding 30 bystanders. It was the first such attack in nearly a month.

On the more conventional battlefield, the focus of attention lay around Basra. Baghdad, Mosul in the north and Republican Guard units outside Karbala and to the south of the capital ­ where vibrations from bombs could be felt 30 miles away ­ were also bombed, but it was on the south-eastern outskirts of the country's second city that the only major assault was launched yesterday.

After a night of explosions in the city, Royal Marine commandos tried to root out Iraqi positions in the palm groves along the edge of the Shatt al-Arab waterway while British tanks and artillery pounded Iraqi armour to prevent reinforcements arriving from Basra itself. The continued assault followed a dawn raid on the village of Abu al-Qassib ­ said to be a stronghold of Iraqi resistance. British commandos captured five Iraqi officers and killed a Republican Guard colonel. Later, hundreds of soldiers were taken prisoner.

However, a Royal Marine was killed and several others injured when their launch was ambushed and came under grenade and gunfire attack as they tried to clear waterways on the Al Faw peninsula.

Assaults were also made, in what the military called "aggressive patrolling", on Basra itself in which five Iraqi tanks and two statues of President Saddam were destroyed. Reports did come in of a new enemy: men in mysterious black uniforms wearing red scarves.

The hot spot of Nasiriyah, further north, was comparatively quiet yesterday. And little more than logistical resupply was reported of the US troops whose advance on Baghdad stopped two days ago ­ some 49 miles short of the Iraqi capital. However, Allied aircraft continued to bomb positions thought to be occupied by the Medina Division of the Republican Guard.

Yet these places remained in the political spotlight as the failure of the original plan ­ setting out a lightning strike on Baghdad and bypassing places such as Basra and Nasiriyah ­ was subjected to continuing scrutiny.

In the UK, the former foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned from the Cabinet when the war was launched without the approval of the United Nations Security Council, dropped a political bombshell. Writing in the Sunday Mirror, he launched an angry attack on the war in Iraq and called on the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to bring British combat units home. He warned that Britain and America risked stoking up a "long-term legacy of hatred" for the West across the Arab and Muslim worlds.

"Shortly before I resigned, a cabinet colleague told me not to worry about the political fall-out ­ the war would be finished long before polling day for the May local elections," Mr Cook wrote. But the siege of Baghdad, now apparently being contemplated by President George Bush and his Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, would result in massive civilian suffering and many unnecessary deaths. "I have already had my fill of this bloody and unnecessary war," he wrote. "I want our troops home and I want them home before more of them are killed."

Across the Atlantic, Mr Rumsfeld was bracing himself for a critical article that will appear today in the influential New Yorker magazine. It claims that Mr Rumsfeld wanted a war "on the cheap" and quotes Pentagon sources as saying that he insisted at least six times before the conflict that the proposed number of troops be reduced, thinking that precision bombing would bring victory.

The famously abrasive and bullying defence chief rejected recommendations to deploy four or more army divisions and to ship hundreds of tanks and other heavy vehicles in advance, the article says. The New Yorker says he also overruled the coalition commander, General Tommy Franks, who wanted to delay the invasion until the American troops denied access to Turkey arrived in Kuwait.

Most alarmingly, it reports that the Army is running out of Tomahawk cruise missiles, that aircraft carriers are exhausting their stocks of precision-guided bombs and that there are serious maintenance problems with tanks. "The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements arrive," a Pentagon official told the magazine.

Reports from the field do not offer encouragement. Dispatches from correspondents "embedded" with combat units claim the infantry is running short of food. Some soldiers say they have been issued with only 10 bullets each. Others claim that the tanks ­ which do only half a mile to the gallon ­ are low on fuel.

With supply lines stretched to the limit, the advance on Baghdad has been delayed by at least a week ­ with one report suggesting the pause in land advances could last 35 to 40 days until reinforcements arrive to deal with ambushes.

Back in Washington and London, those in charge fiercely disputed all this. Downing Street issued a brief statement on the former foreign secretary's article which said: "Robin Cook has a well-known position on Iraq and it is not one that the Government shares."

Later, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, joined the counter-attack. "Robin resigned with great dignity, put his argument with great force," he said. "But it's hard to retain that dignity or force if you advocate capitulation after just 10 days." Questioning Mr Cook's allegiance to Britain, he said: "We have to ask everyone to answer the question: 'Who do you wish to win?'"

Attacks were launched on the media. One of the Government's most hawkish figures, the Labour Party chairman John Reid, it was let slip, had made a private protest to the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, accusing the corporation of acting like a "friend of Baghdad". His outburst was said to underscore the growing frustration among cabinet ministers at the negative tone of the reporting on the advance by Allied forces. Mr Marr was dismissive: "Ministers are angry that they can control where reporters go but what they cannot control is what they see," he said. "Ministers seem to think anyone taking a balanced view is a friend of Baghdad."

The Government's chief spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, is said to have ordered the Whitehall press machine to counter individual stories from the field with the wider overview of the Ministry of Defence.

Despite continued shifts in public opinion in favour of the war ­ yesterday the News of the World published an ICM poll which found 84 per cent of those surveyed believed Britain and the US must see the war through to a successful conclusion with only 11 per cent wanting troops to be pulled out now ­ there was still a need, in Mr Campbell's words, for the politicians to "get the big picture out there".

That was exactly what General Franks set out to do. Usually he leaves it to his staff to give the main briefing at the Central Command headquarters in Qatar, but yesterday he undertook it himself. He made no mention of the US commander on the ground in Iraq, General William Wallace, who a few days ago spoke of taking a pause to pull up the long lines of logistics.

But General Franks did deny that there was an "operational pause" in the fighting. A pause in the overall advance did not mean a pause in the fighting. "Reporting that's coming from inside Iraq ... would reflect that combat operations are continuing. They're continuing in the north, they're continuing in the west, they're continuing right around Baghdad," he said.

Apparently irritated at the criticism, General Franks listed nine successes since the start of war, including securing all the southern oilfields, the coastline and main port. US mechanised units have also made dramatic progress in their advance. They are largely where they wanted to be ­ within striking range of the three Republican Guard divisions defending the Iraqi capital. They are now reshaping for the battle for Baghdad. There has recently been an attack, for example, by part of the US 101st Airborne Division on the Medina Division of the Republican Guard just north of Karbala.

"The air force has worked 24 hours a day across every square foot of Iraq, and every day the regime loses more of its military capability," General Franks said. "We're in fact on plan. And where we stand today is not, in my view, only acceptable, but truly remarkable."

Some support for General Franks' analysis came from the ground. The BBC correspondent Gavin Hewitt reported: "There is much talk of a possible pause in the advance but this doesn't look the case from where we are. There continues to be huge movements of logistics and armour towards the south of Baghdad ... The impression we're getting here is that there is a steady build-up towards obviously what will be the decisive encounter of this war."

And developments were reported from the northern front. Iraqi troops dramatically withdrew about 20 kilometres in the rolling hills east of Kirkuk after bomb attacks by US jets during the night. President Saddam's troops appeared to have made an orderly retreat, falling back to a defensive line on the city's eastern outskirts. They made similar pull-backs on other fronts to the north and north-west.

"They're obviously preparing to defend the city and the oilfields against a coalition northern front, but at the moment there's no sign of that materialising imminently," another BBC correspondent said.

As Day Eleven drew to a close, the controversy continued. Mr Cook replied in a radio interview to Mr Blunkett's riposte: "I am not in favour of abandoning the battlefield and that is not my position. There can be no question at this stage of letting Saddam off the hook. I wasn't in favour of starting this war, but having started this war, it's important to win it. The worst possible outcome will be one which left Saddam there."

But, having apparently moderated his position, Mr Cook used the opportunity for another attack on Mr Blair's US allies. He was scathing about Mr Rumsfeld's hints that America was of the view that two of Iraq's neighbours were interfering in the conflict with hostile intent.

"I was deeply alarmed a couple of days ago when he issued a powerful threat to Syria and Iran," Mr Cook said. "I can't think of anything worse in the present situation than convincing the neighbours of Iraq that they might be the next on the list."

Mr Rumsfeld, if bloodied by all the criticism of the past few days, was decidedly unbowed. He appeared on US television twice yesterday to deny reports that he had rejected requests from US war planners for additional troops.

"The planners are in the Central Command. They come up with proposals and I think you'll find if you ask anyone who's been involved in the process from Central Command that every single thing they've requested has happened," Mr Rumsfeld told Fox News. The plan developed by General Franks is "a good one and it's working. I think the people who are talking about it really are people who haven't seen it."

"We've never had a timetable. We've always said it could take days, weeks or months and we don't know. And I don't think you need a timetable," he told ABC's This Week. "It's been going on nine days," he said. "It's a little early for post-mortems."

The evidence of Day Eleven, however, was that many are clearly yet to be convinced.