Day Five of Iraq War – March 25, 2003

US Short of Troops for Baghdad Battle
Three days of violent sandstorms and low clouds are forecast for southern and central Iraq from Tuesday, March 25. For the Iraqis, this means a couple of days’ respite; for the American and British, a scramble to shroud their tanks and equipment in canvas and tarp sheeting to protect them from the creeping grains. Not only are the tanks out of action until the end of the week, but grounded too, as debkafile‘s military source report, are the heavy bombers, the fighter bombers and the helicopters which fought their first skirmishes with the Special Republic Guards Al Madina Division near al Kut on the road to Baghdad – and lost an Apache. Its two pilots were captured and shown on Iraqi television Monday night.
In the mountains of Kurdistan in the north, snow blizzards instead of sandstorms will hamper the movements of British and American special forces for the next couple of days. Since Monday, March 24, these forces have been coming down in five northern Iraqi airfields: Barmeni, Harir, Bakarjo and Ankwa and H-3 in the west, forming up for the assault to secure the oil fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Their next mission will be to head south for the offensive against Saddam Hussein’s tribal home of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.
The Iraqis, accustomed to these extremes of climate, will use the breather for reorganization, re-supplying the units with fresh stores of ammunition, fuel and provisions and urgent repairs of combat vehicles. They will also use the time to carry out snipe at and harry American convoys, stray vehicles and small campsites.
debkafile‘s military sources report that the Iraqi high command has diagnosed the weak point of the US columns driving to Baghdad as being their long supply lines, often trailing several hundred kilometers behind and easily vulnerable to guerrilla attack. The Iraqis have begun using small fighting squads, often in civilian dress, armed with hand grenades, mines and RPGs, to blow up bridges and vehicles. This was the tactic employed at Nasiriya and Basra.
Based on the first four days of combat, war commander General Tommy Franks has reached a number of conclusions and effected some revisions in his plan of operation.
1. Contrary to expectation, there are no signs of cracks in the Iraqi high command – from the chief of staff down to division, brigade and battalion officer level.
Franks had one last stab at undermining the Iraqi command Monday, March 24. At a news briefing called without prior notice, he said the Iraqi command is no longer “robust”, hoping perhaps to influence the morale of the lower ranks of Iraqi officers and troops.
2. In view of this and other emerging facts, the coalition is short of ground strength for the assault on Baghdad. Franks’ officers at Doha are saying that the Iraqi capital cannot be taken by two US armies. While there is no intention of postponing the assault on Baghdad, putting in a request to the White House for reinforcements is under consideration. The 4th Armored Division passed through the Suez Canal Monday on its way to the Gulf. To shorten its journey, the division’s troops will probably disembark at Saudi Red Sea ports and cut through east into Iraq. The 173th Airborne Brigade based in Italy, counterpart of the 82nd Airborne Division, has received orders to move out to northern Iraq.
3. All these forces, as well as Iraq’s elite divisions, are making ready to fight the main battle for Baghdad. According to our military sources, that campaign is most likely to get started on Saturday, March 29. Only then, will the two sides bring out their biggest guns and apply firepower to a degree never seen since World War II. If the battle goes against him, Saddam may well disclose the chemical and biological weaponry he has kept hidden, or even resort to some sort of nuclear device. That will also be the moment of greatest peril for Israel and Iraq’s other neighbors.
Away from the main arena, a small yet illuminating scene played out just across the Iraqi border Monday morning. Syria complained that a stray American missile had struck a bus killing five civilians and injuring ten.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, the only true fact in this terse account was that the bus was Syrian. The missile was no stray. It was deliberately fired from an F-15 fighter-bomber at a bus carrying armed Palestinian volunteers to join up with Iraqi forces, in order to make sure this was the last such Palestinian group of volunteers for Iraq. That F-15 made a piece of history; it carried out the first American air attack on a combatant Palestinian group. More will certainly be heard of this episode.

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