WASHINGTON — The war in Iraq is just a week old, but it is clear that Saddam Hussein has learned a lot since his forces were routed in the Gulf War.
Like other leaders facing larger, technologically superior forces, he has found ways to improvise and to take advantage of the fact that the fighting is taking place on his home ground. He is waging a campaign of harassment and delay. It is not likely to change the outcome of the war, but it will prolong the fighting, make it more costly for his adversaries and profoundly affect the way it is seen in other Arab countries and around the world.
Already, the Iraqis have forced coalition forces to delay their main-force attack on Baghdad until Basra, which they had hoped to bypass, can be subdued and until the road north can be made considerably more secure.
"We underestimated the capacity of his paramilitary forces," said a senior uniformed officer at the Pentagon. "They have turned up where we did not expect them to, and they have fought with more resourcefulness than we expected them to demonstrate."
Another Pentagon official conceded: "It's clear that Saddam went to school on Desert Storm. It is clear Saddam went to school on Kosovo. He has learned how America attacks."
The North Vietnamese, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Catholics in Northern Ireland and the Serbs in Kosovo have all shown how an outmanned, outgunned force can fight back.
Saddam has obviously concluded that he cannot win a Soviet-style land battle against an adversary who controls the air, so this time his tanks are not arrayed on the desert, waiting to be plastered by allied missiles, although he appears to be willing to use armored divisions south of Baghdad.
Nor can he be confident a centralized command will work. It, too, would be vulnerable to allied air attack.
So the Iraqi leader is leading a kind of guerrilla defense, conducted by the fedayeen, who number perhaps 60,000 fighters, plus hard-core members of Saddam's Baath Party and other irregular forces. U.S. intelligence officials say that command has been devolved to provincial level.
The desert does not afford the kind of cover that the jungles, caves and mountains of Vietnam did (although periodic sandstorms can enable the Iraqis to mount ambushes).
But the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities are ideal places for urban guerrillas who can blend into the crowds to operate, just like those of Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Tel Aviv, Israel. Not only are the guerrillas hard to root out, but doing so works against the American desire to be seen as agents of liberation, not agents of conquest.