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Could this become the next Vietnam?

Evening Standard, 25 March, 2003

Deaths by "friendly fire", helicopters downed, rivers dragged and shot up in the search for American pilots, soldiers missing in action and killed, prisoners of war displayed on television, troops ambushed in guerrilla warfare. At one level it is frightening - and some people hear echoes of Vietnam.

Is this Hallo Hanoi? Could the Iraqi resistance really be the new Viet Cong?

The disaster of Vietnam has haunted American policymakers and soldiers since the US fled Saigon in April 1975. Yesterday Saddam Hussein himself (if it really was he) exploited Vietnam phobia when he declared that the coalition has walked into a quagmire.

This word has legs - it was precisely the term applied in the late 1960s to Vietnam, as thousands of US troops followed each other into the seemingly bottomlepit of the Vietnam war.

The quagmire image worked in Vietnam because the monsoon weather literally bogged down American soldiers in the rainy season. In Iraq, sandstorm is a better image. These can be very disruptive and disorientating.

But at least sandstorms - unlike quagmires - blow themselves out. There are few comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam.

Saddam Hussein does not have communist ideology behind him. He does not have a supply base like North Vietnam, let alone endlesupport from Russia and China. He does not have a Ho Chi Minh trail down which to infiltrate men to kill Americans.

But, like the communists, he does rule by fear.

The US-led coalition apparently failed to kill Saddam Hussein the day before the war began. That is tragic. Until Iraqis know that Saddam is history few will dare switch. They have been betrayed by the Allies before.

At Question Time in Parliament yesterday, Ann Clywd quoted an Iraqi friend who said it was impossible to cheer when you have a Republican Guard living in your house. Tony Blair replied: "Yes, and given the history of the last 12 years people cannot yet be sure we mean what we say."

No war covered in such detail as this would be anything but depressing. But just remind yourself this is only Day 6, and a lot has gone well.

Despite unexpected resistance in some places, the allied advance has been much faster than expected. ["Dramatic and rapid", US commander Tommy Franks rightly calls it.] US troops are now only 50 miles from Baghdad. They have secured most of the southern oilfields - only a handful of wells were set on fire - and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have surrendered.

The port of Al Qasr is now under coalition control, so humanitarian supplies can be shipped in to feed the huge numbers of people who depended on UN aid before the war began.

The precision bombing has succeeded. Despite the "shock and awe" of the initial attacks on Baghdad, very few people died, say the Iraqis themselves.

By any standards this is an awesomely complicated venture, and inevitably things will go wrong. The real test will be the battle for Baghdad. It will undoubtedly bring new and greater dangers. The images will be troubling. There will be more problems - and alas more casualties.

But as the Americans say: "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." This may not be the one-week war we hoped. But it will be won. Iraq will be liberated. It will not be a quagmire like Vietnam.

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