ON the third Sunday of the war in Iraq (April 6), US forces made rapid and dramatic progress in and around Baghdad, loudly announcing the commencement of the battle for the Iraqi capital, even as some fighting, decreasing daily in magnitude, continue in the many towns in central and southern Iraq.
The US 3rd Infantry Division established control over the international airport to the south-west of Baghdad after sometimes fierce fighting over the weekend and have established a forward operational base in this sprawling complex and massed close to 7000 troops there. The airport, although mostly unused since the 1991 Gulf War and subsequent imposition of the no-fly zone and sanctions on air travel to and from Iraq, has intact runways and is a large well-secured area with numerous buildings which would serve such a purpose well.
In the process, US forces including tanks, Bradley armoured personnel carriers and heavy artillery, with air cover by fighters and attack helicopters, wreaked serious damage on Iraqi defensive positions, tanks and artillery. In a demonstration of their control of the airport as well as the ground area and airspace around it, and to test out Iraqi anti-aircraft defences if any, the US landed a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft signaling the possibility of further landings of supplies and troops if needed. Current indications are, however, that the US would prefer to use as an airbase the well-equipped military facility at Habaniyah 90 km west of Baghdad which the 101st Airborne Division is attempting to capture.
US formations also took up positions in the south and south-east of Baghdad, while heavy fighting continues in the east especially for control over bridges over the Tigris and its tributaries. Armoured columns also swung around to the north of the city to block virtually all the highways to and from Baghdad thus almost, but not fully, encircling the capital in preparation for the final assault on the capital.
Route To Baghdad
This US advance is not, however, as sudden or surprising as media reports may suggest. Defence analysts closely observing the progress of this war have noted several aspects in the past week which have pointed to these developments.
Mid-week, US formations had secured transit over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers via several bridges in towns where they had been engaged by Iraqi forces but which they had been able to quell or bottle-up inside the urban centres. From the south and south-west, where the fighting had been the fiercest so far, US forces managed to break through bottle-necks at Naasiriyah, Karbala, Najaf and advanced towards Baghdad going around these towns too. The US 3rd Infantry got past a choke point west of Karbala, a narrow strip of land about 1 km wide between the city and a large lake, to come up on the main approach road to Baghdad from the south-west.
US forces continued to press forward towards on Baghdad from different directions in quite classical military manoeuvres. All three main highways leading to Baghdad from the south, east and from the Syrian border in the north-west were brought under effective US control. The Baghdad-Najaf and Baghdad-Karbala Highways 9 and 10 to the south and south-west were cut off by neutralising Iskandriyah town north of Kut. With similar neutralisation of Numaniyah and Zubaydiyah, Expressway No. 8 running southwards from Baghdad along the Tigris was directly threatened by US artillery leaving large Iraqi formations of the 4th Corps stranded without access to Baghdad or other escape routes. This sudden thrust eastwards from Karbala also secured for US forces 3 bridges over the Tigris, obviating the need to rely on the strategic bridge at Kut where Iraqi opposition is still viable, and enabling US troops to move west-to-east across the Tigris and approach Baghdad from the south in a pincer along both the western and eastern banks of the river. To the west, the 101st Airborne had been steadily advancing and gaining control over Highway No. 1.
In And Around Baghdad
In a massive show of force over the weekend, a large armoured column of the US 3rd Mechanised Division comprising over 70 Abrams M1A1 tanks and 60 Bradleys, made a dramatic and very aggressive sweep through Baghdad northwards along a highway to the west of the Tigris, passing near Baghdad University as it swung westwards, and then sweeping down towards the airport. This column, with air cover by F-16s, tank-busting A-10 Warthog warplanes, wreaked havoc along the way, not only on Iraqi armour and defenses, but also killing hundreds of Iraqi troops. The massive display of overwhelming firepower and military superiority over the weekend’s assaults on Baghdad and its airport sought to demonstrate that US forces could “go where they wanted when they wanted” and also seemed intended to intimidate not only the Iraqi military and political leadership and but also the capital’s civilian population and crush their will to resist. Even the fig leaf of trying to minimise civilian casualties was dropped and hospitals in Baghdad are reported to be overflowing and the International Committee for the Red Cross estimated over 300 civilian casualties per hour since Friday’s assaults on Baghdad commenced.
The fast-paced and aggressive US assault on Baghdad, and their audacious sweep into the city, also seemed to embolden and send a message to the British forces who, taking the cue from the Americans, stepped out of their “softly-softly” siege of Iraq’s second city of Basra in the south. 2000 troops led by 40 tanks and armoured vehicles of the 7th Armoured Brigade and the Royal Marines, with air cover provided by US and British fighters, staged a massive and aggressive charge into the heart of Basrah from three directions, having earlier launched an artillery and mortar barrage against designated targets in the city and its outskirts. British forces this time did not go in, strike and come back out but stayed put, setting up road blocks and advance positions at different points deep inside Basrah just outside the old city.
Iraqi Resistance An The Battle To Come
Not that these advances proceeded without resistance or casualties on the part of the US-British coalition. There was considerable, in places even fierce, resistance by Iraqi regular forces of the Army or Republican Guard and also by black-uniformed para-military forces and fedayeen, now joined by a few hundred other Arab fighters from Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and elsewhere distinguished by red headbands proclaiming themselves as ready for martyrdom. But Iraqi tanks, armour and heavy artillery, such as 106 mm anti-tank gun used in counter-attacks on the airport, were picked out and destroyed by superior firepower on the ground aided by weapons-locating radar, night-vision capability, laser or wire-guided rockets and shells, or from the air by A-10 Warthogs or Cobra helicopter gunships.
Indeed, it appears that the quick turn of events in and around Baghdad was prompted by the US military command’s assessment of degraded and weakening Iraqi defences and armed formations. Many commentators, including this one, had expected the US forces gathering around Baghdad to consolidate and wait for reinforcement by the high-tech 4th Infantry Division, advanced columns of which have already left Kuwait on the 450 km run to Baghdad. US commanders apparently felt they had enough firepower to strike out early and take up advance positions.
Most Iraqi resistance appears to be increasingly confined to machine guns, assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades which are obviously not very effective, except for the RPGs at very close range, against tanks or armoured vehicles which also protect infantry marching behind them.
In the days to come, this will shape the nature of the battle inside Baghdad.
What exact form the battle for Baghdad would take is difficult to predict but some aspects can be anticipated. Massive carpet bombing of the city can virtually be ruled out as can hordes of US-led troops engaging in hand-to-hand combat in the by-lanes of the capital. Baghdad has wide boulevards and few tall buildings which facilitate the use of tanks and armoured vehicles at least in these areas. The US military has been taking lessons from Israel on urban warfare, especially its “pacification” of Jenin in one of the bloodiest Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. It is also looking to learn from the British, whom the Americans credit with greater expertise in urban warfare after decades of it in Northern Ireland, but also specifically drawing lessons from the British experience in Basrah. The British have been sending forces in quick probing raids into Basrah city and, two days ago, British tanks drove straight to the centre of Basrah and destroyed some “regime-related” statues. Such raids can also provide good intelligence to direct air-strikes by warplanes and helicopters on military defences such as tanks, artillery or anti-aircraft weapons and on specific buildings holding the Iraqi political and military leadership.
US forces will likely make fast and aggressive armoured incursions into the city along major highways and boulevards, taking out Iraqi armour or artillery from the air or from the ground, neutralising defenses, taking and holding major buildings and installations, and setting up advance positions deeper and deeper inside the city.
Air patrolling over and aerial attacks on select military and political targets inside Baghdad are likely to intensify with greater use of fighters and closer-range warplanes such as F-16s, F-15s, A-10s and helicopters, apart from unmanned aerial vehicles or drones (which are also, incidentally, armed with Sidewinder missiles) for round-the-clock surveillance and target-spotting. B-52s would not be effective in inner-city battles and American cruise missiles have been out of action for several days due to a serious systems malfunction, probably in the satellite guidance systems, affecting the fleets in both the Red Sea and Meditteranean.
The overwhelming US military superiority can be substantially neutralised by Iraqi defenders only in inner-city areas and alleys where infantry groups will have to advance without protective armour or air cover. The moot point is whether Iraqi forces would have the motivation, will-power and, importantly, ammunition to last that long and continue fighting? And also whether the people of Baghdad, tired out by years and decades of depredation during the war against Iran, the 1991 Gulf War, the decade-long sanctions since then and now three weeks of continuous bombardment, will have the stamina to take the intense pressure that such street-to-street fighting exerts on civilians. This weekend’s events have also shown that the US will not adopt a “softly-softly” approach and is likely to be heavy-handed in the battle for Baghdad.
One can also expect numerous forays by heavily armed special forces and covert operations by the CIA to recruit informers, buy information and incite rebellion or desertions through coercion or “money-bag operations” and therein lies a tale whose full contours will only be revealed much later.
Use Of Special Forces
One can also expect US and other special forces to play an even greater role in the days to come than they have already been doing. US special forces such as the Delta Force and CIA paramilitaries have been in the “autonomous” Kurd-dominated northern Iraq for several months, mostly operating from the US base in Incirlik in Turkey and lately from the forward base at the airfield in Erbil. They were joined by British MI-6 forces and teams from the Israeli Mossad Electronic Warfare division specialising in operations aimed at disrupting Iraqi communications, radar etc. All these were linked to US intelligence command centres through the CIA. British Special Air Services or SAS commandos have been active in the Tigris-Euphrates valley and in southern Iraq, and are widely credited with having gathered the intelligence to enable an air strike on a building in Basrah and killing several top Ba’ath officials including in all probability the commander of Iraqi forces in the south, the notorious General Ali Hassan al Majid or “Chemical Ali” as he has been dubbed by the Americans for having led the Iraqi forces which allegedly used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in the northern village of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war.
Early in the war, US Special Forces seconded to the CIA led 400 Kurdish fighters in a raid upon a camp of the extremist Ansal-al-Islam in north-east Iraq looking for chemical weapons or materials, especially ricin. This was the very camp whose satellite photograph had been dramatically shown by US secretary of state Colin Powell in his presentation to the UN Security Council on February 4 to “show” the link between Iraq and Al Qa’eda. But the forces found no trace of any chemicals!
Special forces are of course very active in the Kurd-controlled areas of northern Iraq where a very different kind of war is being conducted by smaller US contingents of regular troops, special forces and Kurdish militia. It was one such raiding party, with a top official of the pro-US Kurdistan Democratic Party, heading deeper into Iraqi territory between Kirkuk and Mosul than had earlier been thought, that was hit by 2 US F-15 in yet another horrible “friendly fire” incident, killing over 20 Kurdish fighters, several US troops and civilians including journalists accompanying this convoy.
More successful operations recently have been in the Haditha Dam, the raid on the Presidential Palace retreat in Thar Thar 56 km north-east of Baghdad, the blowing up of the Iraq-Syria oil pipeline in north-west Iraq and the dramatic rescue by US Navy Seals and Army Rangers of the wounded American prisoner of war, Jessica Lynch, from a hospital based on a tip-off. More sinisterly, CIA paramilitary forces are specifically targeting for assassination leading members of the Iraqi political and military leadership using snipers and demolition experts, and have already been responsible for over 50 air strikes on Ba’ath Party offices just since the weekend. The battle for Baghdad will see many more of the same.
The Wider Arab Response
Another factor with wider and longer-term ramifications is the response shaping in neighbouring Arab countries. Opposition to the US-led war is daily gaining momentum in all Arab and Islamic countries. The former are particularly incensed at the US assault on Baghdad, widely perceived as the capital not just of Iraq but of Arab and even Islamic civilisation for over a thousand years. Iraqi nationalism, which has surprised many with its ferocity and anti-US sentiments despite sullen opposition to the Ba’athist regime, has been echoed by a wider pan-Arab nationalism. Many volunteers from Arab countries have been coming to Iraq to join the fight against the invading US and British forces.
Increasingly, however, and especially as the war drags on and attrition sets in, it is very likely that the centre of hard-core resistance both inside Iraq and in neighbouring Arab states would shift towards more extremist Islamist sections which may demonstrate greater motivation for the kind of fedayeen squads and attacks increasingly seen in Iraq. Among the many signs indicating this trend are the constant refrain of defending Iraq and Islam including, ironically, by the Arabist-secularist Ba’ath Party and its leader Saddam Hussein. The shift from mainly secular pan-Arabism to extremist Islamism will be an increasing cause of worry for the neighbouring states, for most serious observers of the region and, whether they admit to it or not at present, for the US and Britain too.
13th April 2003