Iraqi deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz later appeared in Baghdad before selected group of Gulf pressmen to deny reports he had defected or was shot. Independent foreign correspondents were not admitted to news conference.
debkafile Exclusive: Tareq Aziz, Taha Ramadan defect
According to an exclusive report reaching debkafile from its military and intelligence sources, top members of the Saddam Hussein regime have begun to desert him. Sources in Kurdistan report that deputy prime minister Tareq Aziz visited Turkey and instead of returning to Baghdad headed into Kurdistan and went into hiding under Kurdish protection. He is said to be under interrogation by American intelligence officers. Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan has not been seen in Baghdad for three days and may too have fled the country.
Both men were elevated to their positions in 1991 after long service to Saddam Hussein as his most trusted lieutenants.
From northern Iraq we hear that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and officers are streaming to the Turkoman town of Tozkhurmato, discarding their weapons outside the town and turning themselves in.
From the warfront we hear that the Marine column crossing the demilitarized line from Kuwait is moving toward Nassariyah in southern Iraq, its objective being to cross the Euphrates and reach Baghdad in two or three days.
Click on the map to enlarge.mg class=”picture” src=”/dynmedia/pictures/March19Thumnail.jpg” align=”left” border=”0″>
US war commanders grabbed the element of surprise after all. While most analysts and forecasters predicted a mighty aerial-missile blitz over Baghdad as the war’s opener, the campaign began Wednesday, March 19 with a lighting advance by Marine forces into southern Iraq along the Shatt el Arb River towards the big naval base and town of Umm Qasr. Fighting alongside the Americans are two brigades of the British 1st Armored Division and naval vessels landing Marine units south of Basra. The first clash of the war occurred shortly after in the mouth of the Khawr al-Zubayr river, a few miles south of Umm Qasr.
The US-UK column is heading at top speed for the oil fields of southern Iraq which have been surrounded by American and British special forces since earlier this month. debkafile‘s military experts view this first major military move in the war as a bold tactic to prevent the sabotage of the oil fields, with the largest field in southern Iraq, Rumailah, at highest risk.
A second column of US 3rd Infantry Division troops crossed into the demilitarized zone on the Iraqi border with Kuwait accompanied by thousands of tanks, combat vehicles and fuel trucks.
Stalled by Sandstorm
Tuesday night, March 18, clouds of gritty flying desert sand put the hundreds of thousands of allied troops poised on the southern and western front lines for the order to advance into Iraq on the defensive. The flight crews of warplanes and helicopters, the tanks crews and the soldiers – on “Black Stage One”, meaning to hold protective suits and gear ready for immediate use – were pre-empted, though not by Saddam Hussein. They had been caught by the first sandstorm of the season, a murky cloud blanketing a key area from Kuwait up to Baghdad.
The region will be prone to these storms from now until the first burning days of summer. Tuesday evening, US and British commanders discovered that the tanks to have rumbled forward in a vast column on Basra in the south and Baghdad further up in the center, had been stalled by grainy sand that gets into everything. The helicopters for flying the bulk of the assault troops to their target zones on three fronts were unable to take off and, worse, their engines and electronic instruments were clogged with the insidious sand.
This was the main reason for the decision by the allied war command to hold back the advance until the weather cleared, further frustrating the already restive troops.
debkafile‘s sources report that military weather forecasters promise the sandstorm will blow over Wednesday, leaving three to four days of clear skies before the next oppressive cloud of dust and sand descends on the area of attack.
Because of the bad weather in the south and west, the only real movement Tuesday occurred on the northern front. Following the signing of their secret accord with the United States, the Turks opened up their air space to American transports and fighter-bombers. Despite vehement denials from Turkey, our sources report that at long last the Americans were able to fly into Turkey troops of the 4th Cavalry Division who had been standing by in Fort Hood, Texas, waiting for the Turks to make up their minds. Some of the division’s troops may be discharged first at Bulgarian and Romanian bases, making their way overland to Turkey and thence into northern Iraq. Tuesday, March 18, US freighters were able finally to enter Eskenderun port and discharge the 4th Division’s heavy tanks.
This turn of the wheel is momentous. It enables the Americans to deploy armored forces on the northern front, which was in grave doubt until the Turks came round.
Another two key developments on the northern front:
The United States, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish chiefs and Turkomen leaders forged a deal permitting Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq. More details are expected on the size of the Turkish force and the extent of its penetration for setting up positions. This was the quid pro quo for Ankara’s consent to five Kurdish brigades of the two main militias, the PUK and PDK, entering the oil city of Kirkuk with the American forces.
Here too the delay exacted a price. The highways of Kurdistan were blocked with many thousands of Kurds fleeing north into the hills out of their cities for fear of Iraqi army reprisals, including chemical and biological attacks on civilians. This exodus was bound to slow the military advance in the north.