The war was barely a week old when Gen. Tommy R. Franks threatened to fire the Army's field commander.
From the first days of the invasion in March 2003, American forces had tangled with fanatical Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, who was leading the Army's V Corps toward Baghdad, had told two reporters that his soldiers needed to delay their advance on the Iraqi capital to suppress the Fedayeen threat in the rear.
Soon after, General Franks phoned Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of allied land forces, to warn that he might relieve General Wallace.
The firing was averted after General McKiernan flew to meet General Franks. But the episode revealed the deep disagreements within the United States high command about the Iraqi military threat and what would be required to defeat it.
The dispute, related by military officers in interviews, had lasting consequences. The unexpected tenacity of the Fedayeen in the battles for Nasiriya, Samawa, Najaf and other towns on the road to Baghdad was an early indication that the adversary was not merely Saddam Hussein's vaunted Republican Guard.
The paramilitary Fedayeen were numerous, well-armed, dispersed throughout the country, and seemingly determined to fight to the death. But while many officers in the field assessed the Fedayeen as a dogged foe, General Franks and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saw them as little more than speed bumps on the way to Baghdad. Three years later, Iraq has yet to be subdued. Many of the issues that have haunted the Bush administration about the war - the failure to foresee a potential insurgency and to send sufficient troops to stabilize the country after Saddam Hussein's government was toppled - were foreshadowed early in the conflict. How some of the crucial decisions were made, the behind-the-scenes debate about them and early cautions about a sustained threat have not been previously known.
A United States Marines intelligence officer warned after the bloody battle at Nasiriya, the first major fight of the war, that the Fedayeen would continue to mount attacks after the fall of Baghdad since many of the enemy fighters were being bypassed in the race to the capital.
In an extraordinary improvisation, Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who was a Pentagon favorite, was flown to southern Iraq with hundreds of his fighters as General Franks's command sought to put an "Iraqi face" on the invasion; the plan was set in motion without the knowledge of top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence.
Instead of sending additional troops to impose order after the fall of Baghdad, Mr. Rumsfeld and General Franks canceled the deployment of the First Cavalry Division;
General McKiernan was unhappy with the decision, which was made at a time when ground forces were needed to deal with the chaos in Iraq.
This account of decision-making inside the American command is based on interviews with dozens of military officers and government officials over the last two years. Some asked to remain unidentified because they were speaking about delicate internal deliberations that they were not authorized to discuss publicly.
Early Resistance Wasn't Foreseen
As American-led forces prepared to invade Iraq in March 2003, American intelligence was not projecting a major fight in southern Iraq. C.I.A. officials told United States commanders that anti-Hussein tribes might secure a vital Euphrates River bridge and provide other support. Tough resistance was not expected until Army and Marine troops began to close in on Baghdad.
Almost from the start, however, the troops found themselves fighting the Fedayeen and Baath Party paramilitary forces. The Fedayeen had been formed in the mid-1990's to suppress any Shiite revolts. Equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms, they wore civilian dress and were positioned in southern Iraq. The first marine to die in combat, in fact, was shot by a paramilitary fighter in a Toyota pickup truck.
After Nasiriya, Lt. Col. Joseph Apodaca, a Marine intelligence officer in that critical first battle, drafted a classified message concluding that the Fedayeen would continue to be a threat. Many had sought sanctuary in small towns that were bypassed in the rush to Baghdad. The colonel compared the Fedayeen attacks to insurgencies in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Colombia, and warned that unless American troops went after them in force, the enemy would continue their attacks after Baghdad fell, hampering efforts to stabilize Iraq. At the land war headquarters, there was growing concern about the Fedayeen as well. On March 28, General McKiernan, the land war commander, flew to the Jalibah airfield to huddle with his Army and Marine commanders. General Wallace reported that his troops had managed to contain the Iraqi paramilitary forces but that the American hold on them was tenuous. His concern was that the Fedayeen were threatening the logistics needed to push to Baghdad. "I am not sure how many of the knuckleheads there are," he said, according to notes taken by a military aide.
Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the top Marine field commander, was also impressed by the fighters' tenacity. Bypassed enemy units were attacking American supply lines.
General McKiernan concluded that the United States faced two "centers of gravity": the Republican Guard, concentrated near Baghdad, and the paramilitary Fedayeen. He decided to suspend the march to the capital for several days while continuing airstrikes and engaging the Fedayeen. Only then, he figured, would conditions be right for the final assault into Baghdad to remove Mr. Hussein from power. To provide more support, General McKiernan freed up his only reserve, troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.
When he returned to his headquarters in Kuwait, there was a furor in Washington over General Wallace's comments to the press.
"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces," General Wallace had said to The New York Times and The Washington Post. "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight." Asked whether the fighting increased the chances of a longer war than forecast by some military planners, he responded, "It's beginning to look that way."
Relying on Speed Over Manpower
To General Franks, those remarks apparently were tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in his war plan. It relied on speed, and he had told Mr. Rumsfeld that his forces might take Baghdad in just a few weeks. In Washington, General Wallace's comments were seized on by critics as evidence that Mr. Rumsfeld had not sent enough troops. More than a year earlier, he had ridiculed the initial war plan that called for at least 380,000 troops and had pushed the military's Central Command to use fewer soldiers and deploy them more quickly. At a Pentagon news conference, the defense secretary denied that he had any role in shaping the war plan. "It was not my plan," he said. "It was General Franks's plan, and it was a plan that evolved over a sustained period of time."
Privately, Mr. Rumsfeld hinted at his impatience with his generals. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and a Rumsfeld adviser, forwarded a supportive memo from Col. Douglas Macgregor, who had long assailed the Army leadership as risk averse. In a blistering attack, Colonel Macgregor denounced the decision to suspend the advance. Replying to Mr. Gingrich, the secretary wrote: "Thanks for the Macgregor piece. Nobody up here is thinking like this."
General McKiernan, for his part, was stunned by the threat to fire General Wallace. "Talk about unhinging ourselves," he told Lt. Gen. John P. Abizaid, General Franks's deputy, according to military aides who later learned of the conversation. At General Franks's headquarters in Qatar the next day, General McKiernan made the case against removing General Wallace, according to officers who learned about the episode. Gary Luck, a retired general and an adviser to General Franks, said General Wallace was not one to shrink from a fight. General Wallace survived, but the strategy debate was far from over.
General Franks did not respond to requests for comment for this article. An aide, Michael Hayes, a retired Army colonel, said that to his knowledge, the accounts of General Franks's threat to fire General Wallace and other conversations with his commanders were inaccurate, but he declined to address specifics.
Seeking an Iraqi Face for the War
Calculating the resistance would fade if the invasion had an Iraqi face, General Franks's command turned to an unlikely ally.
Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who had been long been pushing for Saddam Hussein's ouster and was championed by some Pentagon officials, was based in northern Kurdistan with his fighters. An American colonel, Ted Seel, was assigned as a military liaison.
On March 27, he was asked to call General Abizaid's office. The general wanted to know how many fighters Mr. Chalabi had and if he would be willing to deploy them, according to Colonel Seel.
Mr. Chalabi said he could field as many as 1,000, but Colonel Seel thought 700 was more accurate. The United States Air Force could fly them in to the Tallil Air Base just south of Nasiriya.
Eager to reassure the White House that he had an Iraqi ally, General Franks told Mr. Bush in a videoconference that Iraqi freedom fighters would be joining the American-led forces. Franklin C. Miller, the senior National Security Council deputy for defense issues, was taken aback by the plan. Unlike a small group of Iraq exiles recruited by the Pentagon and trained in Hungary, these fighters had not been screened or trained by the American military.
He approached Mr. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. Who are these freedom fighters? he asked, according to an official who was present. Mr. Tenet said he had no idea.
When the airlift finally started in early April, about 570 fighters were ready. As the C-17's were being loaded, Mr. Chalabi wanted to go as well. General Abizaid objected, arguing in an exchange with Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, that the military command should not be taking sides in future Iraqi politics by flying a potential Iraqi leader to southern Iraq, but Mr. Wolfowitz did not yield. He said Mr. Chalabi's fighters did not want to go without their leader, according to officials familiar with the exchange. When General Abizaid awoke the next day, Mr. Chalabi was at Tallil. His fighters would never play a meaningful role in the war. They arrived without their arms and were not well supervised by the United States Special Forces. But Mr. Chalabi, now the deputy prime minister of Iraq, proved to be undeterred. After arriving at Tallil, he drove to Nasiriya and delivered a rousing speech. It was the beginning of his political comeback.
Harsh Criticism From a General
Determined to spur his ground war commanders to renew the push toward Baghdad, General Franks flew to General McKiernan's headquarters in Kuwait on March 31, where he delivered some harsh criticism.
Only the British and the Special Operations forces had been fighting, he complained, according to participants in the meeting. General Franks said he doubted that the Third Infantry Division had had a serious tank engagement and warned of the embarrassment that would follow if they failed. The resistance around Karbala on the Army's route to Baghdad was minor, he said, and easily crushed. He expressed frustration that neither General McKiernan nor the Marines had forced the destruction of Iraq's 10th and Sixth Army Divisions, units the Marines and General McKiernan viewed as severely weakened by airstrikes, far from the invasion route and posing little threat.
One of the most critical moments of the meeting came when General Franks indicated he did not want to be slowed by overly cautious generals concerned about holding casualties to a minimum, though no one had raised the issue of casualties. To dramatize his point, according to one participant, General Franks put his hand to his mouth and made a yawning motion.
After the session, General McKiernan approached Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley, his top British deputy. "That conversation never happened," General McKiernan said, according to military officials who learned of the exchange. By April 2, American forces were closing in on the capital. Even before the war, Mr. Rumsfeld saw the deployment of United States forces more in terms of what was needed to win the war than to secure the peace.
With the tide in the United States' favor, he began to raise the issue of canceling the deployment of the First Cavalry Division - some 16,000 soldiers. General Franks eventually went along. Though the general insisted he was not pressured to agree, he later acknowledged that the defense secretary had put the issue on the table. "Don Rumsfeld did in fact make the decision to off-ramp the First Cavalry Division," General Franks said in an earlier interview with The New York Times.
General McKiernan, the senior United States general in Iraq at the time, was not happy about the decision but did not protest.
Three years later, with thousands of lives lost in the tumult of Iraq, senior officers say that canceling the division was a mistake, one that reduced the number of American forces just as the Fedayeen, former soldiers and Arab jihadists were beginning to organize in what would become an insurgency.
"The Baathist insurgency surprised us and we had not developed a comprehensive option for dealing with this possibility, one that would have included more military police, civil affairs units, interrogators, interpreters and Special Operations forces," said Gen. Jack Keane of the Army, who is now retired and served as the acting chief of staff during the summer of 2003.
"If we had planned for an insurgency, we probably would have deployed the First Cavalry Division and it would have assisted greatly with the initial occupation. "This was not just an intelligence community failure, but also our failure as senior military leaders."