Saddam’s Next Trap: The Flood Plains between the Great Rivers
After standing up to a grueling three days of foul weather and four major reverses – the Iraqis put up strong resistance at Nasiriya, Basra, Najef and al Amarah – coalition forces drove forward Thursday, March 27, and crossed the Euphrates River from west to east on a broad front.
Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources note that their next stop is the Tigris, a big step closer to Baghdad.
As the suffocating dust and sand cover began to lift Thursday, the allied war command went back to its first plan for the main columns to head straight for Baghdad without shilly-shallying to clean up trouble spots en route. Above all, as the skies cleared of suffocating clouds of sand and dust, the generals were bucked up over their regained air superiority. American and British generals decided, against most expert advice, that the infantry troops to hand – estimated at 170,000 – would be sufficient to overwhelm Saddam’s crack Special Republican Guard divisions and break through to Baghdad.
This was decided although they still face formidable problems, notably the advancing troops’ over-long supply lines which continue to be vulnerable – even to local paramilitary attack. Supplies are reaching the units later and later as they move forward. This situation is aggravated by the masses of explosives Iraqi saboteurs have planted under the river bridges to be crossed by the supply convoys.
In Nasiriya, northwest of Basra, Iraqi regular 3rd Division troops with local militiamen were still pinning down US forces on Thursday. Elements of the US 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, after fighting to capture the bridges at al Qurnah at the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris and heading northeast past al Amarah, looped back to help the beleaguered American force in Nasiriya. Other elements of the two Marine divisions pushed on ahead to Al Hillah on the eastern bank of the Euphrates.
The American 3rd Infantry Division overcame the Iraqi al Medina Division and local militias holding up its progress at Diwaniyah. In Basra, the British 7th Armored Brigade (Desert Rats) was unable to hold Basra and called up American artillery and warplanes to halt a large Iraqi tank column heading out of the Shiite city to the Faw Peninsula to recover lost ground.
A popular Shiite uprising in the city led by Majid Khoei, son of a revered Iraqi Shiite ayatollah, did not take off at its first attempt.
Probing for Weaknesses
The early days of the war saw both sides weaving and tacking as they probed for their adversary’s weak points and adjusted their reactions. US War Commander Gen. Tommy Franks had to adjust to the shock of finding that, contrary all predictions, the Iraqis were for the first time fighting and fighting hard, employing versatile tactics with great flexibility.
When allied troops refused to be thrown back in most places, Saddam made his own adjustments. Suddenly, he began to send small detachments of his elite divisions out of the Baghdad region. Thursday morning, March 27, the first 2,000 troops of the Iraqi Special Republic Guards Nebuchadnezzar Division were seen moving south towards al Kut, while an Al Medina convoy made for Najef. US generals believe that by sending Special Republic Guard units south to meet coalition forces head-on, Saddam has given allied forces several edges: in a confrontation in the open the allies will enjoy the advantages of numbers and superior air might.
Saddam could, however, change tack again and pull his elite troops back to their Baghdad positions or send them out to defend the Tigris – the next allied objective – and cut off their approaches to Baghdad from the east. The next stage in Saddam’s war – after the guerrillas in their pickups – could be to trap the US columns advancing on Baghdad on the flood plains between the two great rivers of western Asia, the Euphrates and the Tigris, until their highest flood period in April and May, slowing progress and the delivery of supplies. If he can hold them up until then, the Iraq ruler believes he has a chance of winning the day.
Until, then, both sides no doubt have rabbits up their sleeves, presumably including an American fleet of amphibious vessels, rafts and mobile bridges for crossing flooded terrain.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military analysts point out that Iraq has kept its air force grounded and hidden. Its warplanes deployed in present circumstances by day would be easy prey for allied air forces. By night, Saddam may send the solo kamikaze pilots, drones or remote-controlled gliders he is known to have ready, with or without WMD, with devastating effect. Another rabbit in Saddam’s bag of nasties might be suicide killers, to follow the guerrillas.
US war planners are banking heavily on the crack 101st Airborne Division, due to reach the Baghdad theatre first – and the “high tech” 4th Infantry Division, which will come in later – both from the west. Above all, Franks is counting on the speed of the columns’ advance to the gates of Baghdad,
The 101st, which came up from Kuwait along the Iraqi-Saudi frontier with hardly any resistance quietly turned up on Wednesday, March 26, at a point between Karbala and the Razaza Lake to the west. Its troops have yet to cross over to the eastern bank of the Euphrates. Nonetheless they are in the forefront of the columns heading for Baghdad. Their task is to take and secure Baghdad’s Saddam International Airport west of the capital. To reach that point, the 101st airborne, which commands 300 helicopter gunships, will have to breach the defense lines of the Special Republican Guards Hamourabi Division.
The US 4th Infantry Division will arrive late because the closure of the Turkish route into northern Iraq made it necessary to divert its 16,000 troops plus additional units numbering some 15,000 men through the Suez Canal. The division’s equipment including more than 200 M-1A2 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles will apparently be delivered separately from the men, who are being lifted across Saudi Arabia to save time.
Baghdad Timeline Problematic
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources doubt whether the US command’s wish to reach Baghdad by Saturday 29 will be granted. Even if the battle is launched on time, it is bound to be on a narrow front for lack of sufficient ground troops and tanks – even after the arrival of the 4th Infantry Division.
The overall war plan is additionally beset by the failure to launch a northern front after Turkey dropped out and the western front’s shortcomings. A US-British operational plan to free the few roads in the area for US armored reinforcements to reach the Baghdad arena was scrapped.
In view of all these developments in the first nine days of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush and Pentagon planners face some hard decisions:
A. Going into battle at the scheduled time, Saturday, March 29 – but only on a narrow front in the southwestern outskirts of Baghdad, which has been pounded by US air and missile strikes almost round-the-clock since Tuesday, March 25.
The 101st Airborne Division, would be useful for this engagement – if it can overcome Saddam’s Habourabi Division, cross the Euphrates and reach Saddam International Airport in time. In short, the most US military planners are hoping for now is for the 101st to take the airport, analogous to capturing Dulles Airport which would be a far cry from capturing the Washington D.C.
Furthermore, commanders of the 101st and top defense officials in Washington and Qatar are under no illusion about the risk of Iraq unleashing chemical and biological weapons mounting the closer American forces come to Baghdad.
B. In addition to an assault by the 101st, US commanders could order elements of the 4th Infantry Division, now making its way from the Saudi Red Sea port of Yanbo to Jordan and on to western Iraq, to launch an eastern offensive (See attached map of the western front) against Ar Ramadi and drive on from there to Al Fallujah, when the division would turn south and enter Baghdad’s northern suburbs.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources can report, while a small number of the division’s tank crews have made it to western Iraq, the tanks will not reach the battle arena in time to launch the Baghdad offensive March 29. Once delivered, the M-1A2 tanks and their crews will need a few days before going into action, not before next week. A graduated assault on Baghdad – first by the 101st Airborne, followed by the 4th Infantry Division was not the scenario originally conceived by the US war command. While on the drawing board, the main thrust was meant to come from the south, the revised script has it coming from the west.
C. A top-level decision has to be made whether to throw into an offensive oriented from the west all four US assault forces moving up from the south after fighting their way across the Euphrates — or just one of them. If only one, a second crucial decision confronting US commanders and policy-makers concerns the disposition of the three or four columns of US forces who are blocked in their passage north, by for instance being ambushed on the flood plain between the two rivers. One suggestion is to use maximum force to force their way through. Or about turn and consolidate US and British gains in the southern cities.
Both have been at pains to avoid combat in densely populated city areas, attended by a high civilian toll and bad press. Even if the two governments decide to go through with this plan of action, it will not solve the problem of insufficient troops to take Baghdad. Urban warfare will leave the troops exhausted with run-down equipment and low supplies of ammunition, after being battered by sandstorms and Iraqi fire. They will not be fit for fresh combat before late next week.
Reserves Call-up Unavoidable
All in all, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts scarcely see how the decisive battle for Baghdad can get underway before the middle or even late April. Temperatures in the region then soar to 42 to 48 degrees centigrade (108 to 118 F) and the terrain to be covered on the way to Baghdad may well be flooded and impassable.
The options under discussion at the US command in Qatar and Washington are:
1. To launch a limited assault on Baghdad immediately.
2. To postpone the battle for Baghdad until April or May.
3. To import to the Gulf three or four US divisions from other parts of the world, with all the political and budgetary ramifications entailed.
4. To call up another 120,000 or as some experts suggest, 200,000 military reservists or — mainly air and ground crews for the assault on the Iraqi capital. Domestic impediments aside, the United States and Britain will not be able to complete this mobilization before late summer or early fall.
5. To pile on more firepower – even tactical nuclear devices – against selected strategic targets, such as locations where Iraqi Special Republican Guards divisions and Saddam’s Fedayeen are well dug-in with chemical and biological weapons, even if they are not brought into play.
According to information reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington, London, Qatar and Kuwait, American leaders will decide on a number of small steps after President Bush’s war summit with British prime minister Tony Blair this week.
One is to launch the assault on Baghdad as scheduled, keeping it to a small sector and aiming more for the psychological than the military effect on the Special Republic Guards troops. As the weather improves over the weekend – the meteorological forecasts are conflicting – coalition forces will try to break through from the south and advance toward Baghdad’s southern suburbs. A partial call-up of reserves will be declared in the United States and Britain, together with the transfer to the Iraqi front from Far East and Asian bases of non-essential air force, maintenance, transport and other support units.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military experts believe these steps can lighten the onus of combat on front-line units in Iraq, but will not solve the primary problem: the United States does not have enough field troops or tanks to smash through the Iraqi defenses ringing Baghdad.