Day Six of Iraq War – March 26, 2003

As night fell, Iraqi forces began pounding coalition troops around Nasiriya in central Iraqi with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The column of Iraqi military vehicles heading south appeared to be making for Najef, where a battle with US troops earlier Wednesday exacted heavy Iraqi casualties; most disturbingly, a huge convoy of Iraqi tanks and APCs rumbled out of Basra in the south and headed towards the Faw peninsula to recover ground lost to the coalition forces in the first days of combat. Allied jet fighters scrambled to the air and began strafing them as they moved forward.
IST 19:15
British forces remained outside Basra Wednesday exchanging artillery fire with Iraqi positions but not attempting to break into this key city of southern Iraq. As the day wore on, expectations dimmed of the anti-Saddam Shiite uprising staged by Majid Khoei with US and British backing taking off. According to one report reaching debkafile, Saddam Hussein’s dreaded cousin, Ali Hasan al Majid reached the embattled city to suppress unrest with harsh measures. Later, Iraqi television, back on the air after being blacked at dawn by US E-bombs (designed to knock out computers, radar and satellite transmitters), showed the bodies of two British soldiers and two prisoners claimed to have been taken in the Zubayr-Basra battle. During the day, Baghdad television screened images of the 14 or more Baghdadis killed by two missiles that hit a poor neighborhood.
Fears of chemical warfare loomed larger after US troops discovered 3,000 chemical suits with gas masks and nerve gas antidote injectors at a hospital near Nasiriya in central Iraq that served as an Iraqi military base. Before dawn Wednesday, Saddam’s Fedayeen and local militias held up the advance of the 7th Cavalry and 3rd Infantry Divisions, attacking US troops stranded on both sides of the Euphrates River when the bridge they were crossing ner Najaf collapsed under the weight of their tanks. The Iraqi forces sustained hundreds of casualties.
A second American armored column was stalled on its way north from Nasiriya to al Kut in central Iraq, later bringing up reinforcements to hold off the Iraqi assault. A large Iraqi tank column was reported on its way to central Iraq to head off American units aiming for Baghdad.
Although there was some temporary clearing of the blinding sand filling the air over the battle arenas, US troops were forced to fight most of the time without air cover. Since the strength of the US military does not lie in numbers, they had to contend with evenly-matched Iraqi forces accustomed to the climate. It is therefore hard to see how the American columns will make Baghdad as scheduled by Saturday, March 29.
Also on Wednesday, President George W. Bush received a briefing over lunch at Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Florida ahead of his conference with British prime minister Tony Blair Wednesday night and Thursday.
Taking advantage of the slowing momentum of the American advance, Saudi ruler Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak began leaning on London and Washington to hold coalition troops back from marching on Baghdad.
First Basra, Then Baghdad – a Reversal
The US War Command has radically reversed the order of its Iraq campaign: Instead of going hell for leather for Baghdad without subduing the rest of the country, General Tommy Franks and his staff have decided that control of Iraq’s second biggest city, the largely Shiite Basra in the south, could provide a handle to expedite the Baghdad campaign. It must therefore come first.
This is revealed by debkafile‘s exclusive military sources Tuesday night, March 25, at the end of Day Six of the Iraq War. The allied war command is counting on the fight for Basra, led by British forces, being resolved Tuesday night or Wednesday at latest. If not, reinforcements will be brought in.
The circumstances leading up to this reversal are as follows:
1. However much this may be denied, American ground forces have fallen behind their operational timeline – in particular the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, under the command of General David Conway, which bypassed Basra and headed north. Instead of racing forward, these divisions negotiated the Tigris River crossing with utmost caution in case the Iraqi Special Republic Guard troops they encountered unleashed chemical weapons.
Then, too, the delayed deployment of the 4th Infantry Division – thanks to the breakdown of US-Turkish understandings two days into the war – leaves a very large gap in the strength consigned to the Baghdad front. This division was to have transited Turkey with its tank force, crossed over to the northern Iraqi oil town of Mosul and headed south to Tikrit in time to take part in the fight for Baghdad.
At the last minute, the 4th Division had to be diverted to the Suez Canal for shipment to Kuwait. In another change of plan, the division’s troops have been put ashore at the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbo, to be lifted by helicopter and truck to western Jordan and Iraq. Their destination there is Al Ramadi (shown on debkafile map). Their heavy tanks will be delivered separately aboard 16 US freighters due to pass through the Suez Canal Tuesday night on their way to Yanbo.
All this means that by Saturday, March 29, the scheduled day of assault, not all the sectors of the Baghdad battlefront will be fully manned in time.
Even without these late-in-the-day hitches, military analysts – as we reported yesterday – judge the 170,000 allied infantry troops allocated to the Baghdad campaign to be below the strength adequate for vanquishing the 145,000 troops of Iraq’s Special Republic Guards Divisions and Saddam’s Fedayeen.
2. US war leaders underestimated the scale of the guerrilla war the Iraqi command was able to organize in two-three days and its potential for disrupting the long supply lines running hundreds of kilometers from Qatar and Kuwait all the way to the approaches of Baghdad. Tuesday, General Franks issued a high priority order to deal with this threat.
3. According to debkafile‘s intelligence sources, the Franks command at Doha learned that Saddam Hussein ordered his son Uday Monday, March 24, to send out army and Baath party agents with pockets full of cash on two missions: to stir up a Palestinian-style Intifada against coalition troops among the civilian populations of the towns bypassed by the allies, and to prevent the Americans and British igniting popular uprisings against the Saddam regime.
Franks counteracted by throwing into the arena a secret weapon, a 3,000-man opposition Shiite militia organized by Majid al-Khoei, the 34-year old son of Ayatollah Khoei, the legendary spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites. The militia, trained and funded by the US war command, waited in Qatar for the signal to go into action.
Monday night, March 25, the Shiite militiamen reached the southern outskirts of Basra at the same time as Uday Hussein’s agents entered from the north. Trapped between the two foes were elements of the British 7th Armored Division’s “Desert Rats” positioned in the southern and western sections of Basra. By Tuesday morning, Uday’s forces with 50 tanks had evicted the British troops from Basra. By Tuesday night, they were back for the final showdown.
This is the background to the riots and armed clashes sweeping the southern city Tuesday, March 25. It also inspired the fervent hope expressed by US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at his news briefing that the Basra uprising would succeed.
What makes control of Basra so important for the Baghdad campaign?
debkafile‘s military sources reveal that allied generals are banking heavily on a successful Shiite uprising against the Saddam regime in Basra under Majid Khoei’s leadership spreading to the Shiite holy cities of Najef and Karbala on the route to Baghdad and also infecting the Shiite troops serving with the Special Republican Divisions defending the capital. Especially targeted are the Shiites of the Iraqi Army’s 2nd Army which is posted in Baghdad.
However, if Uday beats General Franks to the draw and is able to incite the Shiites to rise up in support of the Iraqi army, thereby retaining hold of Basra – even for a brief period – the Shiite community of at least 12 million will not dare to line up behind Majid Khoei. There will be nothing then to stop the Iraqi guerrilla war against allied supply lines growing into a wholesale paramilitary campaign against the American and British military presence in Iraq.
Much for the forthcoming contest in Baghdad is therefore riding on the outcome of the fight for Basra, in which British troops and Shiite militiamen, under cover of American fighter planes and helicopters, are pitted against the paramilitary forces of Uday Hussein, supported by elements of the Iraqi 11th, 51s and 6th Divisions, as well as Saddam’s Fedayeen and the local Baath militia.

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