Closing on Baghdad

  • Share
  • Read Later

U.S. Army 3rd Division clears a captured Iraqi army outpost on the outskirts of Baghdad

Wall Street's war is almost over. The Dow soared giddily Wednesday on news from CENTCOM that U.S. forces had rolled to within a day's walk of downtown Baghdad, crushing two whole divisions of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard as they went. By the following morning, U.S. troops were edging up to Saddam Hussein International Airport. But the stock markets have hardly been the most reliable indicator of the progress of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" — last week they reacted to the stronger-than-expected Iraqi resistance as if the invasion had become mired in the dreaded quagmire. Despite the rapid advance of the coalition frontline to Baghdad's city limits, an assault on the capital may yet be weeks away.

As if to dispel all speculation over an operational pause, U.S. Marines and 3rd Infantry Division units had punched through Iraqi lines at Kut and Karbala and charged hard northward, reportedly bringing their forward positions to within 4 miles of the city limits. "The dagger," said Brig.-Gen. Vince Brooks at Wednesday's briefing in Qatar, is "clearly pointed at the heart of the regime."

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
U.S. officials announced that the Third Infantry Division had destroyed the Medina Division of the Republican Guards opening the way for massed U.S. forces to bypass Kerbala and cross the Euphrates to drive on the capital. And to the east, the Marines claimed to have destroyed the Baghdad division of the Republican Guard and captured a key bridge across the Tigris. Both Iraqi units were no longer "credible" fighting forces, said U.S. commanders, and the effort to destroy the outer perimeter of Baghdad's defenses was going well. Still, having just last week been caught by public expectations of a speedy conclusion, the U.S. at the same time tamped down those expectations. The toughest fighting lay ahead, they warned. Brig.-Gen. Brooks's dagger pointed at the regime's heart, but would be pressed home "when it's time." The downing of a Black Hawk helicopter by small-arms fire, which killed seven Americans, and of a navy fighter plane by a surface-to-air missile, both near Karbala late Wednesday underscored the danger that remains even in the immediate slipstream of the most advanced U.S. positions.

The coalition's current objective appears to be "degrading" the heavy Iraqi units defending the approaches to Baghdad through a combination of around-the-clock bombing of armor and fortifications, and ground assaults backed by further air power. At the same time, intensive bombing of targets in the capital continues, focused on destroying the regime's lines of communication. U.S. Special Forces have also reportedly conducted raids inside the capital, including one on a presidential palace.

Despite the proximity of the 3rd Infantry and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit to the capital, however, it's not clear that coalition forces plan to launch an assault on Baghdad for weeks yet. They're focused right now on attacking heavy units deployed around the capital, but the limited resistance encountered in Wednesday's advance suggests that at least those elements that survived the heavy bombing may have dispersed into smaller, lightly armed but more mobile units or retreated towards the capital. Conflicting reports Thursday suggested some Republican Guard units may be heading south to confront the U.S. forces outside the city, while others suggested many such units were retreating into Baghdad.

The Iraqi defensive concept appears to have relied heavily on guerrilla tactics until now, and spokesmen insist their strategy has been to treat the entire campaign as a battle for Baghdad, hoping ultimately to stop the U.S.-led campaign in the densely-populated streets of the capital even as they continue to harass coalition forces all along the road from Kuwait. Republican Guard's tanks, APCs and heavy artillery pieces are no match for the equipment of the U.S. ground forces, and are easy prey for U.S. air power. One explanation for Wednesday's comparatively easy advances may be that U.S. air power had so pummeled the Iraqis that they were no longer able to mount effective resistance; another is that Iraqi units may be dispersing in smaller units and retreating into the capital.

The crucial question remains how, and when the coalition forces might try to enter Baghdad to deliver the knockout blow to Saddam's regime. Currently, U.S. troop strength on the edge of the capital appears too limited to launch the final battle. Analysts have speculated on whether U.S. commanders will wait to swell their numbers following the deployment in Iraq of the 4th Infantry Division, which was to have provided the northern flank of a drive on Baghdad before Turkey pulled the plug. The 4ID has now landed in Kuwait, although acclimatization and marrying them up with their equipment may take up two weeks.

The Iraqis are relying on the political restraints on coalition forces to even up the terms of battle in Baghdad. Out in the open, U.S. air power makes it no contest, but the coalition's need to avoid inflicting civilian casualties negates many of its advantages in a street-by-street fight for the capital. Baghdad is easily accessible for armor — perhaps in order to make the city's residents more easily subject to the control of his own military, Saddam built a series of six-lane highways that snake into the center of the capital. But its 5 million residents are densely concentrated in small, single and double-story houses with walled-in gardens, and fighting street by street will force the coalition forces to inflict (and perhaps suffer) significant casualties. And if the fighting by irregular forces is as fierce as some seen in southern Iraq in the past two weeks, the going could be slow and bloody. Rather than a grinding fight to take control of all of Baghdad, coalition forces may simply go for the jugular by driving into the area from which Saddam's leadership is operating. But the Iraqis may have anticipated such a scenario, and spread their command structures throughout the city.

One fear confronting U.S. commanders is the possibility that Saddam's forces may unleash chemical or biological weapons now that coalition forces have crossed the "red line" that puts them in range of the most likely delivery systems. But at this stage of the battle, such weapons would almost certainly kill far more of Saddam's own forces than they coalition forces better equipped to respond, and would unlikely have much tactical impact on the battle — and their use would help the coalition's battle for international public opinion. Right now, the Iraqis appear to be preparing for a siege of Baghdad, hoping that the resulting humanitarian crisis the already mounting toll of civilian casualties will turn the political tide against the coalition. The immediate coalition objective is to destroy Iraqi divisions deployed south of Baghdad before they can retreat into the capital. Beyond that, however, the shape and timing of the inevitable assault on Saddam's center of power remain an open question.