Baghdad assault 'delayed for up to 40 days'
PAUL GALLAGHER AND TIM RIPLEY AT CENTCOM IN QATAR
THE United States-led advance on Baghdad appeared to have been placed firmly on hold yesterday after frontline units reported orders to settle into their positions for the next 35 to 40 days.
General Tommy Franks, the US commander, insisted there would be no pause in the assault on Saddam Hussein's regime. But troops on the ground suggested there had been a marked change in the coalition's military strategy.
Frontline soldiers to the south of Baghdad said they were digging trenches, laying mines and camouflaging vehicles to protect their positions, instead of preparing for an imminent advance on the Iraqi capital.
Initial reports at the weekend suggested there would be a delay of about six days to allow supplies and reinforcements to reach the front.
However, military officials reportedly told one frontline unit the "pause" in the attack could last 35 to 40 days. Other reports claimed there would be a two-week pause.
In the meantime, the aerial and artillery bombardment of Iraqi positions would continue to soften up the Republican Guard divisions which lie in the path of the US forces on the road to Baghdad.
Journalists travelling with US units in central Iraq have reported troops having their food and fuel rations cut as supply lines from Kuwait become overstretched and exposed to attack in towns such as An Nasiriyah and Najaf.
A Reuters reporter who is embedded with one US unit in central Iraq said: "It looks like they are going to be in this position for at least two weeks, the sergeant says.
"They're going to send in the aircraft to do the work before the grunts [foot soldiers] go in. It's going to be more air strikes, at least for a couple of weeks probably."
The Pentagon announced last Thursday that another 100,000 US soldiers would be sent to the Gulf by the end of next month to reinforce the 125,000 US and British troops already in Iraq.
Britain's Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, confirmed yesterday that a long conflict in Iraq would lead to UK forces in the region being replaced.
Once the conflict moved into a new phase, the 45,000-strong deployment in the region would be reviewed, Mr Hoon said. "They [UK troops] can certainly stay there for months, and there has never been any doubt of that," he told BBC Radio 4. "I made clear [to the House of Commons] that that was a flexible force; it was designed to achieve certain objectives in a military sense.
"But clearly, ultimately, they would have to be replaced if that was such a long conflict. It's always been the case that these kinds of conflicts require certain kinds of armed forces in the initial phase. Obviously once we move to a different kind of conflict we can then look at whether we have the right kinds of forces."
General Richard Myers, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared to confirm a delay in the battle plans when he said his forces could afford to take their time and were prepared to dig in as they waited close to Baghdad. "The one thing that we have on our side and we are already using ... is patience," he said.
However, at the US Central Command in Qatar, Gen Franks flatly rejected suggestions of a pause in the coalition attack, although he did not deny that the advance from the south of Baghdad had been halted.
"There have been some pundits who have indicated that perhaps we are in an operational pause. It is simply not the case. There is a continuity of operations," he said. "Combat operations are continuing."
The most advanced US units are only 50 miles from Baghdad and more than 300 miles from their supply bases in Kuwait. Iraq said it would target the supply line and chop it up "like a snake".
The stalling of the advance on Baghdad has renewed questions about the coalition strategy and raised speculation of a conflict between senior generals and the hawkish US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
The New Yorker magazine reported that Mr Rumsfeld overruled calls from military officials for more US assault troops and armour before beginning the ground war.
Quoting Pentagon insiders, the magazine claimed Gen Franks urged a delay while the 20,000 troops intended to form a northern front were re-deployed after the US was refused access to Turkey. Mr Rumsfeld, who was anxious to avoid a "heavy footprint" of US forces on the ground in Iraq, insisted the invasion went ahead, it said.
Gen Franks denied the report and said he had personally ordered ground troops to invade Iraq after Saddam's forces started torching the southern oil wells. "Very few people know the truth of how the plan was put together" he said. "No one was driving the thing except the operational commanders."