The spectacular photographic footage of starburst-like explosions and dazzling rocket trails across night skies seen on screens around the world this week strongly misrepresent the military situation in the field.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the big offensive is yet to come – most likely not before Saturday, March 22. Thus far, since Wednesday, March 19, military action has been going forward, but the US war command has made sure to keep it low-key, economical and, above all, sparing of human lives.
Three key directives govern the early days of the conflict:
1. The US war command is under strict orders from the White House to keep US combat casualties down to nothing – especially when the main thrust of the campaign is still to come.
2. The same directive applies also to Iraqi civilian casualties, in consideration of the pivotal impact civilian casualties may have on the manner in which the offensive progresses.
3. The American command has likewise been directed to keep casualties low among Iraqi fighting men. US field officers are ordered to handle with care, in particular, members of Saddam’s elite Special Republic Guard units!
British and American commanders found any initiatives firmly inhibited by these and other restrictions. Combat on Wednesday and Thursday – March 19-20 – consisted of extremely cautious steps, economical of ammunition and types of weapons, a tactic which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts will try to elaborate on when discussing the different warfronts.
The Baghdad Front
In two days of sporadic sorties over Baghdad, US and British air and missiles forces destroyed two palace compounds on the west bank of the Tigris River – Nassariyah and Radwaniyah, in one of which Qusay Hussein maintained his private quarters and command center- also five military intelligence installations and the buildings housing Iraqi foreign and planning ministries. Baghdad has many hundreds of military targets and strategic sites, including military commands. By Friday, they had been left untouched.
The allied bombardments also left intact all the military and civilian airfields in the Baghdad area, including Saddam international airport and the biggest air base west of Baghdad, Habanya.
Also left unscathed were the four Special Republican Guards divisions defending Baghdad with their accoutrements and equipment: Hammourabi, Al Medina, Nebuchadnezzar and the Saddam Hussein Fedayeen Suicides.
The reasoning behind this restraint is the hope entertained by US war planners that when the main allied assault roars into action, these units will come over or else mutiny and seize power from Saddam.
The Southern Front
The unplanned episode of the “surgical raid” on Baghdad Wednesday night aside, US and British commanders determined come what may – and despite the above-mentioned restraints – to capture at lightning speed all of southeastern Iraq, its oil fields and two strategic ports of Basra and Umm al Qasr. After midnight Thursday, the Faw peninsula had been captured by British Royal Navy commando battalions, the Umm Qasr naval port and town was in the hands of US Marines and UK armored units and the same forces had advanced up to the gates of Basra.
Even for these operations, vital for salvaging the southeastern oilfields and halting missile attacks on Kuwait, orders were drilled into the officers to economize on firepower and call up air cover only in extreme contingencies.
Because the enemy confronting them was unexpectedly restrained, the three Iraqi divisions defending southeastern Iraq – the 51st Mechanized – which holds the first line defending Basra, the 11th Infantry – the second line of defense and the 6th armored infantry – which is deployed north of Basra, went on fighting. Early reports that two of those divisions were on the point of surrendering were not borne out later. The only division to sustain an allied artillery barrage was the 11th.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources discovered the method behind this apparently illogical strategy. The American war command, looking ahead, attaches high importance to the Basra population of three million, 98 percent of whom are Shiite, welcoming the coalition invaders as an army of liberation rather than conquest. This would set the tone for the millions of Shiite living in the other southern Shiite cities, notably Najaf and Karbala. It is in their power to block the road to Baghdad or open it up to the advancing American divisions who must first cross the Euphrates bridges in Shiite territory. Feared above all by General Tommy Franks and his lieutenants, according to our military sources, is the Basra population shutting its doors and windows against the incoming allied troops – or even worse making a show of resistance with weapons kept in every home. A sullen reception by Basra’s citizenry would be deemed an ill omen for the continuation of the coalition campaign.
The US war command is also uncomfortably aware of Iranian military eyes on the other bank of the Shatt al Arb trained hard on the course of events in the Shiite domains. Tehran undertook to keep its hands off the conflict in Iraq as part of its understandings with Washington. However if they believe Iraqi Shiites may come to harm, they may well go back on their promises and step into the fighting.
The Western Front
Like the other warfronts of this campaign, the main force has not yet been thrown into the field. The American and British special forces who have been there some weeks moved into the H-3 air force base complex Thursday night, the launching pad of some of the Scud missiles that hit Israel in 1991. They are now heading for two other Iraqi air bases – H-2 and a-Rubta. All these air bases were found to be more or less deserted and inoperative, which helped the officers on the front obey their instructions to maintain a low profile.
Thursday, March 20, all the 40,000 or so men of the two Kurdish militias, Talabani’s PUK and Barzani’s PDK descended from the hills of Kurdistan and congregated in Kalak, a town northwest of Kirkuk, ready to join the American assault on this oil city.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that American units assigned to capturing Kirkuk and Mosul are already on hand. They are waiting for the order to drive forward to their targets concurrently with the start of the main thrust on all fronts, the date for which has been set provisionally for Saturday night, March 22.
The allied command tends increasingly to mount major operations by night in order to take advantage of the night vision equipment that lends the troops a substantial edge over the Iraqi soldiers who lack this aide.
Before Friday morning, the Turkish brigades poised on the border for weeks will begin entering north Iraq, after their leaders reached full accord with US, Kurdish and Iranian leaders and parliament in Ankara gave its assent.