Blount for President, Part 2: U.S. Attacks on Holdouts Dealt
Iraqis Final Blow
R. A. Hettinga
rah at shipwright.com
Sun Apr 13 18:45:08 PDT 2003
"My OODA can beat your OODA"...
The New York Times
April 13, 2003
U.S. Attacks on Holdouts Dealt Iraqis Final Blow
By JOHN M. BRODER with ERIC SCHMITT
DOHA, Qatar, April 12 Reports from the battlefield that the remnants of Saddam Hussein's government were circling their wagons, Gen. Tommy R. Franks said, came as an revelation.
Not just the Iraqi leader's military commanders, but the Baath Party's security and intelligence officers and the paramilitary fedayeen fighters were isolated and afraid in their own country. They were banding together in whatever safe places they could find: party headquarters, government offices, even their own homes.
Their last redoubts, General Franks's field commanders told him on Monday, were the final targets of the American-led military campaign.
The night before, an American B-1 bomber struck a gathering in Baghdad that intelligence sources said included Mr. Hussein and members of his inner circle. It is not known whether Mr. Hussein or any of the others were killed.
"The threat creates its own battle space," General Franks said in an interview after his visit to commanders at the front. "That is epiphanous. This guy, because of fear brought about by isolation from the regime or whatever, likes to aggregate. That's a powerful piece of information for which the regime will suffer greatly."
Striking those last clusters of command, he concluded, would be the "tipping point" that would topple the fractured government, signaling to the people of Iraq that its rule was truly at an end.
General Franks, the overall commander of forces in Iraq, ordered his field commanders to redouble their efforts to find and attack the last holdouts, using every available tool from the blunt instrument of artillery fire to the stiletto stab of assassination.
Two days later, Baghdad fell. One city after another followed, although sporadic fighting has continued and Tikrit, by today, was tenuously holding out.
American war planners say no single, decisive moment tipped the scales.
Not that the outcome was in doubt: the only question in their minds, military leaders said from the beginning, was whether the war would be long and ugly, or short and elegant. It turned out to be something in between: swift but not tidy, devastating to the vanquished but not painless for the victor.
Devised to exploit enemy weaknesses and to capitalize on American strengths in weapons technology, communications, surveillance, and skillful maneuver by armor, infantry and Special Operations forces, the strategy emphasized flexibility above all else. Battlefield commanders were encouraged to improvise in a way that some compared to a quarterback calling audibles at the line of scrimmage.
When American troops reached the gates of the capital, for example, they threw away their original visions of how to besiege Fortress Baghdad, where they had expected the government's toughest troops putting up a fierce defense and drawing them into a nasty street fight.
Finding the barricades weaker than they expected, Army troops and marines poured in, hastening the end of the fighting by days if not weeks.
As at almost every turn in the three-week campaign, they seemed to be two or three days ahead of the Iraqi defenders "inside the enemy's decision cycle," as commanders put it.
Nearly every parry the Iraqis had apparently planned blowing bridges, torching oil wells, turning towns and cities into bloody traps came too late to ward off the allied thrust. The most dangerous of defenses, using chemical weapons, was never attempted.
Special Operations forces were in Iraq securing oil fields in the north and south before the first shot was fired, preserving a resource that will be needed to finance Iraq's future. Officials said they believed that leaflets warning oilfield workers against destroying wells might also have been effective in deterring sabotage. Other commandos quickly poured into western Iraq to prevent launchings of Scud missiles against Israel or Jordan.
The speed of the American advance and the effectiveness of attacks on the Iraqi command and control network may also have prevented the use of chemical weapons. The Iraqis have a rigid military command structure and the decision to use weapons of mass destruction is not made at the field level. By the time such weapons might have been used to halt the American advance on Baghdad, most likely allied troops had cut the communications links to the divisions defending the city, bombed them into oblivion and blown past them.
It may only become clear over time which battlefield action, or combination of actions, brought down the government so swiftly.
"I do think the concept of a tipping point is correct," Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Monday. "But it will be cumulative rather than at one moment."
By Wednesday, as the statues of Saddam Hussein were toppling, that point had come.
A Campaign Unlike The War of 1991
The classified war plan for Iraq, which Pentagon officials call 1003 Victor, bore little resemblance to the strategy the military used in the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
In that conflict, the United States amassed nearly 550,000 troops over six months and pounded Iraqi forces from the air for weeks before mounting the short and decisive land attack to oust Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait.
Under Mr. Rumsfeld, this war would be different: a choreography of a few divisions, backed by precision bombing from an array of warplanes and missiles, all steered toward their targets by a constellation of sensors in the sky that gave commanders a round-the-clock look at the battlefield.
Working with Mr. Rumsfeld, a gruff, 70-year-old former Navy pilot who challenged every assumption in the strategy, was not easy. He dismissed as unimaginative the original plan that General Franks presented last summer.
It called for about 250,000 troops, but aides to Mr. Rumsfeld, entranced with the success of the Special Operations forces working with allied fighters in Afghanistan, asked if the attacking force could be smaller, perhaps numbering fewer than 100,000.
Senior military officers held their ground on the size of the force but incorporated more fully the idea of attacking swiftly from multiple directions, and with more unconventional warriors, than the original plan envisioned. A northern front was added to put Baghdad in a pincer. Ultimately, the plan went through more than a dozen versions before winning the approval of Mr. Rumsfeld and President Bush.
It called for unleashing at the outset 3,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles over three days. The bombardment would seek to stagger the Iraqi military and pave the way for a fast-paced ground attack to topple a Hussein government in shock.
On March 4, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the military's plan to win a war against Iraq. "The best way to do that would be to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end was inevitable," General Myers said, adding that that attack would be "much, much, much different" than the first gulf war.
The plan reflected not only the technological advances the American military has made in the past decade, but also a widely held view inside the Pentagon that the Iraqi Army, a third of its size before the 1991 gulf war, would fold quickly, and fall back into Baghdad for a last stand. Chemical or biological weapons were considered the main wild cards.
In the weeks before the war, some senior officers wore a cocky air. "I'm not losing any sleep at night," said Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys, the Air Force's chief operations officer, when asked about the threat posed by the Iraqi military.
Another innovation in the plan was to launch the invasion even as allied troops were still arriving in the region. This notion of a "rolling start" to the war was a sharp departure from past doctrine.
Mr. Rumsfeld's aides defended the approach, saying that it metered the flow of troops to avoid undermining Mr. Bush diplomatic negotiations with the United Nations Security Council, recognized the limitations on flowing forces through Kuwaiti ports, and offered a smaller target for any pre-emptive Iraqi attack.
But some military experts, including experienced commanders, warned that the plan assumed too much risk, providing no immediate reserve force in the event the American-led invasion faced surprises or setbacks.
Critics also said that deploying a force of overwhelming numbers would illustrate American resolve, and could intimidate Iraqi forces into laying down their arms or even turning against Mr. Hussein's government. Once victory was at hand, these experts argued, it might require an even larger force to pacify Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction than it took to topple Mr. Hussein.
For a plan built on speed, maneuver and decisive force coming from several directions, any hitch that that slowed down the attack could cause serious problems.
In early March, commanders were still tweaking the final plan, but General Franks declared his forces ready for battle. "If the president of the United States decides to undertake a military operation," General Franks said, "there is no doubt we will prevail."
By March 19, there were more than 250,000 American and British troops in the gulf region, with more than 130,000 Americans in Kuwait alone. About 1,000 Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps strike and support planes were poised to attack from five aircraft carriers and land bases in the region.
A Bold Move Made Outside the Plan
The plan never envisioned the war's first decisive moment.
At 9:33 p.m. in Washington on March 19 (5:33 a.m. the next day in Baghdad), the Bush administration grabbed a chance to end the war with one bold strike.
Acting on a tip from American intelligence, two F-117A stealth fighters each dropped two one-ton satellite-guided bombs on a compound in Baghdad where Mr. Hussein and his top leaders were believed to be meeting. Warships and submarines in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea fired some 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the complex.
But Mr. Hussein escaped the airstrike, and suddenly the plan's flexibility was put to its first test.
One essential but largely invisible part stayed on track. Eight hours before the attack against Mr. Hussein, thousands of allied Special Operations forces, supported by ground-attack aircraft, poured into western Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Jordan to knock out Iraqi border posts and to blast suspect missile sites.
But the sequencing of the rest of the complicated and carefully calibrated air-ground strategy had to be changed. Instead of starting with two days of preparatory airstrikes followed by an aerial barrage, General Franks on March 20 ordered the First Marine Expeditionary Force to cross into Iraq from Kuwait. He feared that Iraq would ignite the more than 1,000 oil wells in the south, obscuring the battlefield and incinerating one of Iraq's most valuable postwar resources.
As the American Marines and British forces surged toward the oil fields, the Army's Third Infantry Division launched its sprint to Baghdad that would cover 200 miles in the first 36 hours. As waves of troops marched north, allied warplanes and cruise missiles bombarded Baghdad, striking Mr. Hussein's palaces, military and Baath Party headquarters and other pillars of power that supported the government.
But the air campaign also pulled its punches. Scores of targets were yanked from the bombing list for fear of inflicting too many civilian casualties or too much damage to buildings the Americans wanted to preserve for the postwar Iraqi government.
The decision allowed Iraqi television to stay on the air, broadcasting tapes of a defiant Mr. Hussein and, later, grisly images of American dead and prisoners of war. "That hurt us," one senior military official said.
The attempt to shock the government into submission had failed, and the air war shifted to a more conventional assault on the Republican Guard divisions that blocked the southern entrances to Baghdad.
On the ground, armored forces charged to within 100 miles of the city in less than three days. But the sprint had left supply convoys gasping to keep up and exposed the Army's flanks and rear areas to unexpectedly fierce attacks from paramilitary forces Mr. Hussein had sent south to enforce discipline in the Iraqi ranks and shoot deserters.
American intelligence had expected fierce street-to-street fighting in Baghdad, but not in the largely Shiite cities of the south, including Basra, Nasiriya and Najaf. The joyous liberation welcomes that defense officials predicted did not materialize. "The regime's hold was a bit more than we expected," a Pentagon official said. "And the people's fear of the regime was more than we bargained for."
On March 27, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, commander of the Army's V Corps, said bad weather and the unexpected resistance of the Iraqi forces had slowed the advance and increased the chances of a longer war than military planners had forecast. "The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against because of those paramilitary forces," General Wallace said.
The senior field commander's comments galvanized a chorus of criticism from retired generals and anonymous officers in the Pentagon, who criticized the plan for not having enough heavy troops in the fight, and for failing to provide an armored cavalry regiment to protect the supply lines.
"Their assumptions were wrong," said Gen. Barry M. McCaffrey, a retired Army officer who had led the 24th Mechanized Division in the 1991 gulf war. "They went into battle with a plan that put a huge air and sea force into action with an unbalanced ground combat force."
At the Pentagon and at the headquarters of the Central Command in Qatar, the question was quietly raised by some officers: Should we hang back, root out paramilitary fighters in the southern cities and wait for reinforcements, or plunge forward into Baghdad?
What little debate there was did not last long. The campaign relied on speed, and any diversion or significant pause would dangerously slow the momentum needed to keep the Iraqi military and the central government off balance. The orders from Mr. Rumsfeld and General Franks were resounding: Baghdad is the prize. Press on, and press hard.
But American commanders made adjustments. A brigade of the Third Infantry Division was moved to protect supply lines. Special Operations forces were dispatched to the cities to gather intelligence and hunt down the guerrilla fighters. "We had to adapt on the fly," a Pentagon official said.
By now, the howling sandstorms that had grounded scores of Apache helicopter gunships had passed, and the fearsome attack choppers resumed hunting Iraqi tanks. At the same time, the air campaign had shifted the bulk of nearly 800 strike missions each day to pummeling the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisions dug in, often near mosques or schools, on the southern outskirts of Baghdad.
As Iraqi armor rushed south to reinforce the battered divisions, they unwittingly rumbled into what one senior officer called "a meat grinder," as waves of A-10, F-16, F/A-18 and F-15E strike planes blasted away. Even heavy bombers were called in against them.
American forces drove forward, entering the "red zone" around Baghdad, the area that posed the greatest risk from a chemical or biological weapons attack. Soldiers and marines donned chemical protection suits and braced for the worst.
But the threat vanished. The remaining Republican Guard divisions collapsed. By April 2, the vanguard of the American force stood 20 miles from the gates of the city.
Expected Uprising Failed to Materialize
The southern part of Iraq, from the port city of Umm Qasr up through Basra to Zubayr, was supposed to be Iraq's soft underbelly. It abuts the allied staging area in Kuwait, meaning that troops would be fresh and well-supplied when they struck. Its population is predominantly Shiite, enemies of the Sunni minority that had ruled the country under Mr. Hussein and had savagely suppressed a Shiite revolt in the area after the 1991 gulf war.
It was expected that the population would rise up again, or at least welcome the invading force with flowers and flags of surrender.
The sector was assigned to the British First Armored Division, roughly 25,000 well-armed soldiers accompanied by commandos hardened in the art of urban warfare by duty in Northern Ireland. Marines from the First Marine Expeditionary Force also joined the fight in the south.
But the fighting proved much tougher than expected. Umm Qasr was declared captured during the first 24 hours of the ground war, but unexpectedly stiff resistance from Iraqi forces within the city continued for several days, delaying the opening of the port for aid supplies. The first two American combat deaths came on March 21 in Umm Qasr. One marine was killed in fighting near the port, another near an oil pumping station outside the city.
Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and a major objective of the ground war, likewise proved more difficult than commanders expected. The battle for the city began promisingly an officer of the Iraqi 51st Division surrendered with some of his soldiers to American forces early in the ground war, leading to expectations of mass surrenders. But they never came.
After a number of failed forays into the city that produced several American and British casualties, the allied forces retreated to the outskirts and began a slow siege that lasted more than two weeks.
Other cities in the far south, notably Zubayr and Safwan, quickly fell into British hands, although the public welcome was less than tumultuous. But British troops ultimately felt so confident there that they removed their Kevlar flack vests and helmets and put on their regimental berets.
Basra, by contrast, remained dangerous until this week.
"We can go anywhere we want in Basra in a tank," a British officer said on April 7. "But we're keen to get out of our Kevlar and into the hearts and minds of the public."
The campaign battle plan envisioned a popular Shiite uprising in the south that would be set in motion by the arrival of allied troops, although that was always more a hope than a concrete military plan, officials said.
The revolt never happened. Memories of the failed uprising of 1991 during which American troops stood by while thousands of civilians were slaughtered were still too raw. Despite a long leaflet and radio broadcast campaign to assure the public that the allied forces were coming to liberate them, the Shiites in the south remained unpersuaded.
"We bear a certain responsibility for what we didn't do in 1991," a senior aide to General Franks confessed as fighting continued to rage around Basra in late March. "If you have been beaten up and beaten down the way they have been for 12 years, it should not surprise us that they're waiting to see."
What finally tipped the scales in Basra was neither the allied propaganda campaign nor a rebellion against the remaining Iraqi forces, but the steady application of force by patient British troops. On March 28, acting on intelligence from commandos on the ground in Basra, allied aircraft bombed a Baath party gathering, killing an estimated 200 party officials. The next day, British troops staged a raid into the middle of city and destroyed two statues of Mr. Hussein.
Two weeks later they bombed a house belonging to Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, the reviled "Chemical Ali" who was responsible for a poison gas attack on Kurdish villagers in 1998. Mr. Majid, who was in charge of Iraqi forces in the south, and his bodyguard are thought to have been killed.
All these actions were designed to undercut the continuing resistance; more important, they were aimed at the minds of the uneasy civilian population.
It was not until the fall of Baghad that Basra was secured. There was still a reluctance on the part of the citizens to believe that the allied forces would stay and protect them.
In that sense, taking full control of Iraq's second-largest city early in the war was not a prelude to conquering the capital. It was the other way around a vindication, perhaps, of the strategy of plowing ahead to Baghdad.
Applying Strength Against Weakness
On April 3, elements of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment attached to the Third Infantry Division, with heavy air cover, stormed Baghdad's international airport, an important military and psychological objective of the war plan. The investment of Baghdad had begun.
But it did not unfold like the patient British siege of Basra. General Franks is not a patient man.
The plan he was following put a premium on surprise and on seizing the initiative.
"It is really a framework that allows different pressures to be applied at different places on the regime over time," one of General Franks's senior war planners at Central Command in Qatar said. "It allows us to adjust our action when we see a particular weakness."
General Franks and his aides sensed that Baghdad's vaunted defenses were a facade. He suspected that the Iraqi forces had not fallen back into the city to wage an urban guerrilla campaign. Instead, he surmised, those who had not been killed in the previous two weeks of lethal air attacks had abandoned their weapons and melted back into the countryside or cities. Their command and control apparatus had been broken and they were incapable of mounting any organized defense of the capital, he calculated.
To test his theory, on Saturday, April 5, he ordered a column of tanks and armored personnel carriers to make a swing through the heart of the city, advancing almost to the Tigris River before turning west toward the airport. They were met by disorganized but well-armed formations of Iraqi fighters, who loosed small arms and grenade fire on the advancing Americans.
The Iraqi actions were futile. American commanders estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqis were killed during the three-hour armored tour, an unknown number of them civilians. One American soldier died.
"In every war there are windows of opportunity," the Central Command war planner said. "Sometimes you seize them with great effect."
The next day, Iraqi television broadcast images of Mr. Hussein, or someone who looked like him, in an odd bit of street theater, walking about the city of Baghdad, shaking hands and even kissing a baby.
His information minister, the irrepressible Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, proclaimed that Iraqi forces were destroying American units all over the country and said, "The Americans aren't even 100 miles from Baghdad." American and other international television networks were broadcasting live reports from the Baghdad airport, 11 miles from where Mr. Sahhaf was standing.
But the allied commanders were not content to let the television networks speak for them. C.I.A. operatives on the ground, picking up intercepted telephone conversations and tips from local informants, were drawing a bead on Mr. Hussein and members of his family, as they had the first night of the war.
On Monday, April 7, a B-1 bomber loitering over western Iraq after an in-flight refueling received an urgent order. The crew was ordered to fly to central Baghdad to hit a "priority target" in a residential area.
They were over the target 12 minutes after receiving the coordinates, unleashing two bombs that pierced the building's roof, followed by two more bombs equipped with delays, which allow the explosives to penetrate deep into the target before exploding.
It is not yet known whether Mr. Hussein or any members of his inner circle were killed, although witnesses reported that 14 civilians died in the blast. The raid, like the one nearly three weeks earlier, was designed to shatter what was left of Mr. Hussein's government and demonstrate to the Iraqi public that the allied onslaught would continue until the government collapsed.
It did so with surprising speed. Two days later, after a series of increasingly aggressive armed reconnaissance missions through nearly every quarter of Baghdad, an Iraqi crowd, with the help of a Marine tank recovery vehicle, pulled down a statue of Mr. Hussein in Firdos Square in central Baghdad. The dictator had fallen.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
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