Day Four of Iraq War – March 23, 2003

US Troops in First Encounter with Iraqi Republic Guards
After a tough day of facing Iraqi resistance and setbacks – the first American troops were taken captive and 12 were killed – America’s Iraq War took an important military turn late on Sunday, March 23, as reported exclusively by debkafile‘s military sources: The first frontal engagements between US troops advancing on Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s elite Special Republican Guards. They began near Al Amarah, a small town on the Tigris River, and at al Kut, some 100 km upriver to the northwest.
Al Amarah is geographically the southern gateway to Baghdad.
The US-led column driving towards Baghdad along the easternmost route up the Tigris River is led by the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions. Sunday, they bypassed Basra, leaving behind the 7th British division to assert control over Iraq’s second largest city, and dashed north towards Al Amarah. Waiting for them were three Iraqi divisions, the 10th, the 11th and the 4th Corps, which is the Special Republic Guards Nida armored division.
By the end of the day, the Marines and the Nida tank force had entered into their first of clash of arms of the series to come.
Three additional US columns are pushing towards Baghdad.
The 3rd Armored Division with elements of the 82nd Airborne drove out of Nasiriya towards al Kut, after opening up the Euphrates bridges in a fierce battle that cost 10 American lives. Posted there is the Special Republican Guards’ Al Medina Division, 2nd Armored Brigade, the only Iraqi force known for certain by US intelligence to deploy weapons of mass destruction.
During the night, hundreds of US Apache and Black Hawks pummeled the unit’s advanced T-72 tanks, taking heavy ground fire and losing at least one Apache, which was displayed Monday, March 24, on Baghdad television.
This helicopter-tank duel was not the end of the confrontation, but the beginning. It was intended to convey to Saddam’s troop formations that their only option is to surrender or be battered to extinction. The warning, issued as the second Gulf War approached its first 100 hours, the point at which the first Gulf Was discontinued, was meant to drive home a message to Saddam’s defenders that this campaign would go on to the end.
The third American column, led by the US 7th mechanized Division augmented by additional units headed north from Nasiriya toward the two Shiite holy towns, Najef and Karbala, bypassing both, skirting the Bahr al Milh Lake and turning east toward the Euphrates River.
Standing guard over Baghdad at this point is the Hamourabi division of the Special Republican Guards, the final major obstacle on this route to the Iraqi capital. If this division is overcome, the advancing US force can make its way with tanks across the Euphrates River and quickly reach Baghdad’s Saddam International Airport.
The fourth column is the most secret one. Its name has not been released and little is known about its mission beyond the fact that it is the fastest moving of the four, zipping across the vast desert spaces between western Iraq and the Saudi frontier towards al Fallujah, 20 kilometers north of Baghdad. Its objective is to strike at the line of contact between the Iraqi Hamourabi and al Medina Divisions.
debkafile‘s military sources report that two more spearheads will beef up the four columns when full-scale battle is joined between them and Saddam’s crack units: The northern formation, which is being assembled from US forces drawn in from Kurdistan and other parts of the northern front – since Saturday, March 22, they are being dropped by air over four Iraqi airfields; and the western formation, which is coming in from Jordan and western Iraq, and will start pushing towards Ar Rubta and Saddam’s home town of Tikrit on Tuesday, March 25.
The first four American columns’ overall objective is to bring the Special Republican Guards divisions and the Iraqi capital within range of American artillery and tank guns by the end of this week. The next stage will be to subject Baghdad to a lethal artillery-aerial strike cocktail.
Until then, debkafile‘s military experts stress that the crushing bombing-missile air raids inflicted daily on Baghdad since last Friday – with fearful effect on television screens – are not targeting the city per se. After hitting some of Saddam’s symbols of government, the brunt of the blitz is directed at cutting off the Special Republic Guards ringing Baghdad from access to the city. It is meant to demonstrate to their commanders that come what may they will not be allowed to withdraw into Baghdad and embark on an urban war of attrition against US forces trapped in city streets. Any Iraqi troops attempting to fall back will be eliminated before they set foot in the capital.
debkafile Military Analysis of First 72 Hours
Iraq war commander General Tommy Franks, in a news briefing Saturday, March 22, at his Qatar headquarters, declared that this war is unlike any other ever seen before as regards its scale, overwhelming force, surprise and shock, precision and flexibility. He stressed that the devastating bombardment over Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities Friday night was absolutely precise in reaching its selected targets and no other.
That said, and with American armored columns slicing through the country to Baghdad for the their first real test of Franks’ strategy and his army’s mettle against elite Republican Guards Division forces, debkafile‘s military analysts singles out some of its manifestations thus far:
1. Attempts by US officials to present Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi people and the outside world as having been put out of action, killed or injured in last Wednesday’s bombardment, had failed by Saturday, March 22, to yield any evidence that his hand was off the helm of government. debkafile‘s intelligence sources are certain that the Iraqi ruler had a lucky escape and was nowhere near the bomb site. His son Qusay was there earlier, but left before the cruise missiles hit the building. Vice president Taha Yassin Ramadan who was killed was the only casualty. The Iraqi leadership is therefore fully functioning.
2. Although the 8,000 officers and men of the 51st Mechanised Division of the Basra region turned themselves in to the allied forces, the scale of surrender by Iraqi troops on other fronts is inconsequential, confounding hopes that the early shock of the invasion and aerial bombardment would frighten large numbers of combatants to throw in the towel.
It must also be noted that combat skills and motivation displayed thus far by Iraqi fighting units is less than middling and easily overcome by the advancing units.
It is clear that General Franks is reserving his most overwhelming resources for the battle of Baghdad, leaving for later the large pockets of resistance embedded in the teeming population of the south.
3. This decision was influenced by the generally cool and cynical reception the allied armies encountered from the population of southern Iraq ranging from Umm Qasr to Basra, who they had come to liberate. Rather than showing joy or even fear, the locals made it clear that they were reserving judgment waiting to see if the Americans were there to stay or would be ordered to turn round 150 km short of Baghdad, leaving the Saddam regime in place, as they did after the first Gulf War.
4. The three foregoing points indicate that the battle for Baghdad will not be easy.
Continued at IST 03:35
General Franks warned against expecting the war to be over in hours, days or even weeks. The conflict was following its appointed timeline, he stressed, though he said nothing about keeping to its appointed plan of action. The big question that will decide the fate of the conflict is this: Will Saddam Hussein succeed in his plan to draw coalition forces into urban combat inside the city? If this cannot be avoided, then the massive allied bombardment of Baghdad intended to soften up Iraqi resistance in advance will have failed in its object and the goal of a short, low-casualty campaign will recede.
The Iraqi ruler has massed around Baghdad – not only his crack fighting divisions and most loyal suicide units, but also his missiles and weapons of mass destruction, including possibly radiological devices. If he sees Baghdad’s outer defenses crumbling, he is liable to deploy those weapons in a last stand. The Americans may well retaliate with nuclear devices of their own, tactical or bombs, a decision the US President will be called upon to make.
5. The state of play is far from cut and dried on the western front as well. Although joint American and British forces were in control of western Iraq, including the big H-2 and H-3 air bases, by Saturday midday, still ahead of them is the major task of occupying and cleaning up the Iraqi-Syrian border sector, the site of hidden Iraqi stores of surface missile batteries and unconventional weapons systems capable of reaching Israel. debkafile‘s military sources report these weapons are maintained on transporters and can be whisked at a moments notice over the border into Syria and out of reach, although it is only a matter of time before they are destroyed even there.
IST 16:00
Allied missiles again hit Baghdad as city awoke Saturday to assess the damage of the overnight blitz. Iraqi authorities reported three civilians killed and 207 injured. The Iraqi health minister made a point of emphasizing that Saddam Hussein was alive and well, despite the widespread media reports that he had been injured in the first allied bombardment of Baghdad.
Most of the casualties of the thousands of air sorties and missile strikes were sustained by the four elite Republican Guard divisions defending Baghdad, who fell back from their 50km perimeter around the capital to a 30km line.
During the day US-UK advances were substantial. After the fall of southern Gulf port of Umm Qasr and Nasiriya, gateway to the Euphrates, elements peeled away from the main force to mop up pockets of resistance. The capture of Nasiriya by elements of the US 3rd Division permitted the allied column to cross the Euphrates and to continue its rapid advance towards Baghdad, bypassing the two big Shiite towns of Najaf and Karbala.
One whole Iraqi division, the 51st, came over with 8000 men and 200 tanks, weakening the defenses of Basra. Two-thirds of the city was quickly captured, while allied commanders entered into surrender negotiations with Iraqi 6th Armored and 11th Infantry Divisions. Talks also began with civic leaders of the predominantly Shiite city, Iraq’s third largest, whose population the coalition is determined not to antagonize. Removal of the 6th Armored Division from combat would be important because the line held by this force north of Basra from its base in Majnun commands the oil fields of Iraqi Khozistan on the Iranian border. Unless disarmed, this division would pose a constant threat to the oil fields.
Following the capture of the big H-2 and H-3 air base complexes of western Iraq, allied military engineers began preparing the installations for large-scale aircraft and helicopter landings of thousands troops from Jordan and western Saudi Arabia. The incoming units will head two ways: one section will secure Iraq-Syrian border regions in the north. This force may possibly even entering Syria to seek an destroy Iraqi surface missile batteries and chemical and biological weapons systems smuggled across the frontier and capable of reaching Jordan and Israel. The second force will turn east in the direction of Tikrit and al Ramadi.

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