Massive Air Strikes Leave Baghdad Burning

  • Share
  • Read Later

A U.S.-launched missile soars towards Iraq as soldiers watch from the northern Kuwaiti desert

Day 3 of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and Baghdad got pulverized. A massive air bombardment of Saddam Hussein's capital left the night sky burning bright , in the first installment of the promised "shock-and-awe" air campaign that U.S. commanders had held off on for the past 48 hours. Like the attempted "decapitation" strike that targeted Saddam and the multi-layered propaganda effort that followed, the latest bombardment of Saddam's power centers is to destroy the enemy's will to resist (and capacity to communicate), rather than to physically eliminate his fighting forces.

At the same time, U.S. and British ground forces are moving into southern and central Iraq, having seized Iraq's only deep-water port at Umm Qasr and begun fighting for control of Basra, the capital of Shiite southern Iraq. Air strikes have also blasted targets in the key northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, where unconfirmed reports also suggest U.S. airborne troops may have seized control of important oilfields.

Although coalition forces encountered some significant resistance at Umm Qasr and elsewhere in the south, the military units on which Saddam is depending to stand and fight have been deployed closer to Baghdad. The crucial indicator of how long and bloody this war will be is likely to come over the next week as U.S. and British forces come face to face with Republican Guard units deployed along the approaches to the capital. Saddam and his generals knew they could not stop the U.S. and British forces at Iraq's borders; their game plan has been to fight them to a standstill by forcing them into a bloody battle for the capital. U.S. commanders are hoping, however, that the combination of heavy air bombardment targeted at the regime's power centers and the rapid drive by coalition forces towards Baghdad will force a collapse of Saddam's regime as even loyal troops read the writing on the wall.

War on Iraq's ongoing coverage of the U.S.-Iraq conflict

 After Saddam
Who will step in to fill the void?

 Tools of the Hunt
 On Assignment: The War

 Perry: Street Fighting in Karbala
 Robinson: Chaos at a Bridge
 Ware: Last Stand for Saddam

 When the Cheering Stops
Jubilation and chaos greet the fall of Saddam's regime, leaving Iraqis and Americans puzzling over how to rebuild the nation
 The Search for the Smoking Gun
 Counting the Casualties War in Iraq
The imperative for our military to move swiftly and the need to avoid innocent casualties creates a complex juggling act — finishing the war quickly, as President Bush said late Wednesday, requires maximum force. But maximum force also greatly increases the risks of civilian casualties, particularly since Saddam has deployed so many of his key military resources in civilian population centers. Most of the ordinance dropped by U.S. planes these days is guided with precision to its targets by satellite or laser-pointer, but precision bombing require precision intelligence — the U.S. bomb that destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1998 was guided by satellite with deadly accuracy; the problem lay in the intelligence that had wrongly identified the building. And the inability of U.S. and British intelligence tips to guide UN weapons inspectors to any "smoking guns" over the past three months is a reminder that there's much on the ground in Iraq that remains unknown to coalition forces.

The need for destroying the regime speedily while minimizing the traumatic impact of the war may explain why its first act involving targeted strikes at centers of power and a movement of ground troops into Iraq, signaling to Iraqi commanders that the battle has begun and demonstrating, through steadily escalating air attacks that their defeat is inevitable — but also giving them the space to take themselves out of the equation, or better still, to turn on Saddam and his cronies. And, of course, the U.S. retains the option of rapidly escalating the application of force from the air or on land. The escalation is unlikely to be slow because of the political pressure on the U.S. to finish this quickly; and second, the fact that Saddam's own strategy may be built precisely on the idea that the longer he is able to survive and demonstrate that his forces are putting up resistance, the better his chances of averting the catastrophic regime-collapse the Americans are trying to achieve. Thus far he's lobbed a couple of missiles into the invasion's staging grounds in Kuwait, and has set fire to a handful of oil wells. A number of false alarms notwithstanding, the feared attacks with chemical and biological munitions have not thus far materialized, and Saddam's strategy may be to try and draw the coalition forces into a bloody battle for Baghdad, in the belief that they may balk at the military and civilian casualties that could involve.