March on Baghdad brings mix of power, flexibility

By James Kitfield

April 4, 2003

V CORPS FORWARD TACTICAL HEADQUARTERS, Central Iraq - A distant shout comes out of the dark of early morning. It could mean a soldier merely awakening from a nightmare. No reason to jump to conclusions, or out of a warm sleeping bag. Yet the shouting spreads through the camp and grows nearer in an unmistakable sign of greater urgency. The tent barracks suddenly spring to life amid the frenzied buzz of sleeping-bag zippers and a wild light show of careening flashlight beams.

"Gas!" "Gas!" "Gas!" go the shouts.

At 0450 on April 2, three more Iraqi missiles fell near the V Corps forward base camp, in an attack that was as inaccurate yet potentially lethal as the others in prior days. The previous morning, a nearby Patriot battery had intercepted an Al Samoud missile nearly overhead, with the shock wave of the aerial impact providing all the warning anyone needed to reach for the protective gear on his hip in a well-practiced draw. After this new attack, many soldiers simply lay back down on their cots in full chemical-protection outfits, patiently waiting for either the all-clear or the first telltale signs of a nerve gas attack. To the dismay of fellow travelers, several soldiers proved the axiom that you can even snore through a gasmask.

Inside the V Corps Tactical Headquarters tent, the scene was surreal and deadly serious as rows of staff officers peered at laptop computers through bug-eyed masks that made the officers look like mutants. No one was more serious than a lone figure sitting in front. Col. Stephen Hicks, V Corps's operations chief, or "G-3," was staring at an electronic map-board the size of a wall. When the clear sign was given, he took off his mask, ran his fingers through close-cropped gray hair in a motion that was more tic than grooming, and stared some more. His gaze was fixed at a single point on the map.

It was a vigil Hicks had maintained for days, a vigil interrupted only intermittently by a few hours' sleep snatched on a cot in the back. When V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace stopped by almost daily, the two men would confer quietly with a few close aides, their laser pointers dancing over the map screen before inevitably converging on the same spot. After Wallace left, Hicks would often bark a few orders, indulge in occasional outbursts of temper, and then return to his thoughtful vigil.

The subject of his intense interest was a sliver of land between a large body of water known variously as Lake Razazah or the Bahr al-Milh (Sea of Salt) and the Iraqi town of Karbala. That sliver, called the Karbala Gap, was no more than a mile wide. In truth, ever since the Iraq war began, Hicks had been a little frightened of the Karbala Gap.

To accomplish the mission of regime change in Baghdad, V Corps planners had always focused on the elite Republican Guard's Medina Division-which sat astride the southern approaches to the city-as the likely center of gravity in the campaign. The problem was that the Medina commander had dispersed his three brigades of armor and artillery throughout the towns and villages east of Karbala, a largely urban area crisscrossed by canals, irrigation ditches, and small bridges. That kind of urban sprawl largely negated U.S. advantages in weapons range and in speed and maneuverability of ground units. Just north of Karbala, on the other hand, was a wide-open swath of territory bordering the eastern shore of Lake Al Razazah and flanking the Medina Division and the southern approaches to Baghdad from the west. An abandoned firing range for Iraqi forces, this territory north of Karbala was tailor-made for U.S. maneuver forces.

There were only two problems. If Saddam Hussein or his Republican Guard commanders had a shred of tactical acumen, they would know that V Corps would be sorely tempted to try to thread nearly a division's worth of combat power through the eye of this mile-wide needle. And if the Iraqis ever intended to use chemical weapons to their tactical advantage, they would never get a better chance than at that moment in the Karbala Gap.

"The Karbala Gap is scary to me, because it's very near the red line that we expect will trip the use of chemical weapons. And if the Iraqis are ever going to use chemicals, that's where you'd expect them," Hicks told National Journal shortly before the attack through Karbala. Although a persistent chemical agent dropped in the gap would not stop U.S. armored forces driving pressurized tanks and armored vehicles, he said, it could cut their critical supply lines. "On the other hand, the area occupied by the Medina east of Karbala, between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, is very complex and restrictive terrain where we think the Iraqis want to draw us into a close urban fight. So I have always felt that passing and holding the Karbala Gap was critical to this campaign. It will open up the flank of the Medina, and once we defeat Saddam's best division, it will be very hard for the Iraqis to contest this war with conventional forces."

While they spent nearly five days probing the Medina brigades, softening them up with air attacks, and launching feints to draw the enemy's attention away from the Karbala Gap, V Corps commanders were well aware that the lack of obvious forward progress in the campaign had provoked a storm of criticism in Washington. Everyone knew that Gen. Wallace's comments to reporters-that U.S. forces had been surprised by the intensity of some of the Iraqi resistance, and that the war might take longer than originally anticipated-had caused a major controversy for the Pentagon, which categorically denied any surprises or slippages in the schedule.

At the front, Wallace's statements seemed self-evident. For commanders in the field, a determined enemy is an occupational hazard, and tactical surprises and delays are not to be apologized for, but rather counted upon. The only cardinal sin is failing to correct for these developments; the resulting penalty can be a military debacle. So for five days, V Corps probed and feinted and resupplied. Then, on April 1, at midnight local time, V Corps launched the long-anticipated penetration of the Karbala Gap and envelopment of the Medina Division. How that operation progressed largely depended upon how well U.S. commanders had read and learned the lessons of the previous week.

The Enemy Votes

When a fierce two-day storm of sand and rain finally ended on March 27, the morning revealed a landscape that looked as if it had been molded from the primordial Earth itself. Soldiers and war machines, the twisted forms of destroyed tanks and vehicles-everything was coated with a paste of congealed dust. The backdrop to that monochrome world, though, was a pale blue sky and a cool refreshing air, the kind of weather coveted by hunters and by armies on the offensive. After a bold three-day fighting march through Iraq and a sandstorm of biblical proportions, V Corps found its forward ground forces nearly astride the southern approaches to the Iraqi capital. Just as their battle plan envisioned, U.S. Army forces were poised to shock the Republican Guard with a hammer blow against its signature Medina Division guarding the southern gates of Baghdad.

As V Corps commanders assessed their position and continued to probe the enemy in the succeeding days, faint warning alarms began to sound, and the mood in the V Corps headquarters turned taciturn. The battle plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom, as configured in the final months before the war was launched, relied heavily on the speed and agility of U.S. maneuver forces to keep the enemy off balance, and to mask the vulnerabilities inherent in the U.S. plan: lean forces and a long and exposed lifeline of supplies and reinforcements.

Although U.S. commanders had hoped to exploit the speed of the attack, the 300-mile march and surprisingly fierce storm had delayed supply convoys and left forward combat forces low on ammunition and fuel. The storm also grounded U.S. combat and reconnaissance aircraft. A heartened Republican Guard used the grounding to mask a repositioning of its forces. Facing no threat from the north, a direct result of Turkey's decision not to host U.S. ground forces, the Republican Guard's Nebuchadnezzar Division began sending units south to reinforce the Medina Division.

Meanwhile, instead of falling in the face of the U.S. onslaught, key cities along V Corps's path of advance-Nasiriya, Samawa, Najaf-stayed stubbornly in the grip of Fedayeen Saddam loyalists and paramilitary forces that sat astride the U.S. logistics tail, or what military commanders call their "lines of communication."

V Corps commander Wallace had continually cautioned his officers that the Iraqi enemy would have a vote in the course of this war. As the initial reports and after-action reviews of U.S. engagements with the enemy poured into the V Corps Forward Tactical Headquarters, the officers' inescapable conclusion was that the Iraqi forces had identified potential chinks in the U.S. armor and had decided to fight it out.

No U.S. unit was engaged with the enemy earlier or more often in the war's first week than the 7th Cavalry Regiment, the screening force for the main elements of the 3rd Infantry Division. As the first unit into the Shiite town of Samawa, the 7th was introduced early to the complexities of this war, and to the perils of urban combat. Welcomed as liberators coming into town, the Americans were dodging increasingly intensive enemy fire on the way out.

"Samawa was odd, because we saw a lot of joyous people waving and cheering us, and then suddenly 20 yards away, someone in robes and civilian garb who looked just the same as everyone else would pull out an AK-47 and start firing away at us," said Chief Warrant Officer Randy Godfrey, an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot for the 7th. "And that's the way it was the rest of the way toward the bridge on the outside of town-the farther north we pushed, the more intense the fire. The whole time, we never saw anyone in uniform."

Capt. Darren Griffin, another Kiowa pilot with the 7th, says that Samawa left a lasting and bitter impression with him about the nature of urban warfare. "What really surprised me was how fast things can turn very bad, with fire coming at you essentially from 360 degrees. That was a real eye-opener. And then when the dust storm blew in, we had to batten the helicopters down for the weather, and we heard our ground element that crossed the Euphrates was in a close and intensive firefight. That was the last we heard from them for about 24 hours, which really worried us. We're all about that plane ticket home, and trying to make sure everyone in the unit gets one."

After crossing the Euphrates River on the night of March 24, lead armored elements of the 7th Cavalry almost failed to claim their return tickets. Essentially on a feint to make Iraqi forces orient their guns toward the land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, and away from the Karbala Gap that was always the main U.S. objective, the 7th got into the equivalent of a close-in knife fight in the midst of the sandstorm. With the advanced optics of their M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles largely blinded by the impenetrable dust, the 7th lost two M-1 tanks and an M-113 armored personnel carrier to dismounted Iraqi infantrymen armed only with rocket-propelled grenades. With the help of reinforcements, the unit pulled back across the river without suffering serious casualties. It was a lesson, however, that U.S. commanders said the Iraqis would remember as they attempted to coax U.S. maneuver forces into dense urban settings east of Karbala in the Euphrates River valley. That conclusion placed even more importance on the Army's ability to successfully penetrate the Karbala Gap.

"That feint showed the Iraqis that they could be very effective in stopping or harassing armored forces with dismounted infantry in an urban setting," said a senior V Corps officer. "The Iraqis learned from Desert Storm that they can't fight us out in the open with our advantage in range in terms of weapons, and they know we love wide-open spaces. So their strategy was clearly to lure us into urban terrain. They want to hide in towns and villages and pull us into the effective range of their tanks by catching us coming around a corner of a building, or from behind."

The initial confrontation between the Medina Division and the Apache helicopter gunships of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment also convinced V Corps commanders that they needed to allow more time for Air Force and Navy aircraft, dropping precision-guided weapons, to degrade the Iraqi division's armor and artillery brigades. This "pause" was the result of a critical prewar decision made by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to cut the planned size of Army forces essentially in half and focus on agility and high technology rather than on more-conventional force packages. U.S. Central Command, as a result, went heavy on the deployment of Apache helicopters in lieu of the traditional mix of heavier and slower artillery systems. After the initial experiences of the Apaches in the urban sprawl south of Baghdad, it was a decision that a number of Army officers were second-guessing.

Lt. Col. Mike Barbee, commander of the 6th Squadron of the 11th Cavalry, helped lead the Apache attack on the Medina on the night of March 23. "We flew north very close to the outskirts of Baghdad to attack elements of the Medina, and it quickly became clear through our infrared optics that in contrast to maps showing our ingress route as going over rural areas, we were in fact flying over towns and cities and a lot of urban sprawl. By the time the second and third troops of helicopters came along the route, they were taking heavy anti-aircraft fire on ingress, at the objective, and on the way out. Very quickly, our No. 1 priority became engaging the enemy air defenses that were firing on us, and I think there was probably some hesitancy on the part of my pilots to return fire because of our great concerns about collateral damage. In the future, I can assure you, there will be no such hesitancy."

Of the more than 30 Apaches the 11th Calvary sent out that night, all were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Some were so significantly damaged that they still cannot return to the fight. "We expected to face small-arms fire," said Col. Bill Wolf, 11th Calvary Regiment commander. "What surprised us was just how much small-arms fire you can take in that environment, and how well coordinated it was."

When an even larger flock of Apaches from the 101st Airborne Division launched a deep strike against the Medina on March 28, the copters flew in low at night over the dark waters of Lake Razazah to avoid ground fire. But the Apaches had to settle for destroying only a handful of tanks and trucks. The main force of the Medina that was the intended target had seemingly melted away. Unfortunately, the disappearance of main armor and artillery elements of the Medina was just one of the tactical surprises that confronted V Corps's forward commanders in the first week of the war, and by no means the most disconcerting.

Fedayeen Fanaticism

"Fallah" is a deserter from the Iraqi regular army. He's a weather-beaten first sergeant who claims to be 42 years old, but looks well over 50. Crouched on his haunches amid a group of fellow deserters at a U.S. checkpoint outside of Najaf, he volunteered to talk with a Western journalist. According to a U.S. Army Reserve colonel and civil-affairs specialist at the checkpoint, Fallah's story was fairly typical of the Iraqi army stragglers who walked great distances to surrender to U.S. forces.

The regular Iraqi army, Fallah said through an interpreter, was tired and very hungry. Many soldiers from Najaf, a Shiite Muslim holy town with little natural affinity for Saddam or his Sunni Muslim Baath Party, had likewise hoped to surrender to U.S. forces. Then, in the middle of the night, came the knock on their doors by men wearing black robes, with only their eyes visible through the folds. When asked who the men were, Fallah became agitated, pronouncing the name like a curse.

"Fed-a-YEEN!"

The Fedayeen Saddam loyalists had taken the families of Iraqi soldiers hostage, he said, and threatened to kill them unless their men went out to fight the American invaders. Any deserters were summarily shot by fedayeen overseers who, Fallah insisted, were high on a drug that made them both fanatical and obedient. The Iraqi would not say what had happened to his own family, though he did volunteer that he had six children.

"When Saddam is gone, the people will rise up and kill the fedayeen," said Fallah, and his expression seemed to corroborate that part of his story. "That's why they fight so hard."

Despite Pentagon statements to the contrary, the question of why the fedayeen and other Iraqi paramilitaries fought so fanatically was the central mystery of the first 10 days of the Iraq war. Theories and postulations ricocheted through the V Corps Tactical Operations Center. Some were based on intelligence, and others on soldiers' conjecture: The fedayeen were hopped up on drugs; they had been reinforced by busloads of Palestinian martyrs; they were raised since childhood in a cult of Saddam worship.

Credible reports of the loyalists' depravity likewise abounded. In Nasiriya, marines discovered a blood-spattered torture chamber in a hospital occupied by suspected fedayeen, as well as a shallow grave containing the bodies of suspected American prisoners of war. An intelligence dispatch posted on the bulletin board in the headquarters tent reported that fedayeen had gouged out the eyes of a young Iraqi deserter, then driven him around Baghdad on display as a warning to others. By March 31, soldiers of the Republican Guard's Nebuchadnezzar Division who had come south to reinforce the Medina had apparently adopted fedayeen tactics, using women and children as human shields at a river crossing. When one of the women tried to escape by jumping into the river, the Iraqis shot her.

What is not in dispute is that fedayeen loyalists were sent to Iraq's southern cities by the thousands before the war, and they have been inspiring fear among the populace and a fanatical resistance to U.S. forces. Using unnerving tactics in the first week of the war that could only be described as suicidal, Iraqi paramilitaries and the soldiers they drove before them repeatedly assaulted U.S. armored forces on foot or in the back of "technical vehicles," jury-rigged pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.

The disturbing experience of Maj. Jon Segars of the 3rd Infantry Division was typical of the early days of the war. His Task Force 269 was charged with guarding a bridge outside the town of Hillah, just northeast of Najaf. "Yesterday, we had a guy driving a truck, coming from the north out of Hillah into Al Kifl, which we're at now," Segars told USA Today reporter Steve Komarow, who is also embedded with V Corps. "We shot him with a 120-mm heat round, which is a high-explosive round, and hit the truck, which is the normal procedure for trucks. Instead of killing him, he barreled out of the truck. And we continued to shoot him with the machine gun as he came toward the tank."

What shocked Segars's troops was that the man kept charging the M-1 Abrams, the world's most fearsome battle tank, despite taking multiple hits from a 7.62-mm machine gun. "He just kept coming," Segars said. "Basically, we had to cut his head off with the machine gun to get him to stop."

Lt. Col. Kenna McCurry, a wiry intelligence officer who wears his Scotch-Irish heritage like a badge, admits that the fedayeen have been an unpleasant surprise in the Iraq campaign. "We knew the fedayeen would be a problem, but we underestimated the intensity and fanaticism with which they'd fight," said McCurry, the "G-2," or intelligence staff officer, for the V Corps Tactical Headquarters. Military analysts estimate that fedayeen forces number anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 irregulars. "For them to repeatedly rush tanks and armor as dismounted infantry is reminiscent of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. Increasingly, we've come to view the fedayeen as almost a cult dedicated to Saddam, many of whom were indoctrinated at a very young age."

Although their tactics were militarily futile as well as suicidal, the fedayeen had a definite impact in slowing the U.S. juggernaut. By maintaining their grip of terror on key cities along the long U.S. line of advance-and coming out at night to harass the relatively soft underbelly of U.S. supply convoys-the fedayeen forced V Corps commanders to devote their limited maneuver forces to isolating those cities and protecting critical lines of supply. At various times during the past week, for instance, elements of the 3rd Infantry Division; 101st Airborne Division; 82nd Airborne Division; and other units were involved in screening off Iraqi cities so that the logistics convoys astride them could get through to the forward-based American forces.

"Ironically, we were originally most concerned that the populace in the Shiite cities in the south would turn on the Baath Party loyalists and fedayeen and start executing them, so the reality proved very different from what we expected," said Hicks. "The problem of these fedayeen and Special Republican Guards coming out of those cities and threatening our lines of communications forced us to be a little more cautious, and work to establish containment of those cities. Everyone basically agreed that in the interim, we needed to be more deliberate and not take a chance of outrunning our headlights."

But even as V Corps commanders were forced to divert limited combat forces to the perimeter of cities such as Nasiriya, Samawa, and Najaf, the unheralded battalions of the Army's Corps Support Command-the supply troops who together outnumber any U.S. fighting division in Iraq-continued to do what they do better than any other force in the world: work tirelessly to establish a massive logistical footprint for the next leap forward in the campaign. By April 1, a 3,500-foot dirt runway capable of accepting C-130 tactical airlifters was ready for operations in the northern staging area for U.S. forces, courtesy of the round-the-clock work of the men and women of the 535th Combat Support Company, 94th Engineer Battalion. Nearby, the "Water Dogs" of the 226 Quartermaster Water Purification Company were pumping tens of thousands of gallons of water a day for thirsty U.S. troops, who kept arriving in a seemingly endless convoy from the south. A scant few miles away, the "Fuel Masters" of Corps Support Command were operating a massive fuel farm. There, they were refueling forward U.S. forces from giant 210,000-gallon fuel bags cradled in sand berms and lined up side-by-side for more than a hundred yards.

First Sgt. George Hosster is the senior noncommissioned officer for the Fuel Masters unit, which worked straight through the two-day dust storm to get the fuel farm up and running. "We don't get much respect from the helicopter pilots and tank drivers," he said. "But I tell them all the time, 'Without us, you're just dismounted infantry carrying pistols, or soldiers manning a pillbox.'"

Gates of Baghdad Calling

By dusk on April 2, main elements of the 3rd Infantry Division were already far north of the Karbala Gap, and well on their way toward enveloping remnants of the Medina Division. After a feint by U.S. forces drew two of the division's brigades out of their bunkers on March 31, U.S. aircraft hammered the division. Afterward, it could offer only light resistance to U.S. ground forces flanking them from the west. By April 2, what had once been the crown jewel of the Republican Guards was declared by the Pentagon to have ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. Baghdad will now be encircled from the south by U.S. Army V Corps, and to the east by the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

As the noose tightens, U.S. commanders grow increasingly worried that Saddam will lash out with chemical or biological weapons in a last, desperate act of retribution. If the Special Republican Guards and paramilitaries still inside the capital choose to go down with Saddam, the lesson of the first week is that some of the war's bloodiest fighting and most difficult days are likely just ahead. Even so, a major moment of vulnerability passed with the successful breaching of the Karbala Gap. With the Medina Division melting away, the door to Baghdad is open.

The situation farther south, and for the future, seems more uncertain. U.S. and British forces have adopted a strategy of isolating the major cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and launching precision air strikes and hit-and-withdraw "thunder runs" by ground forces against Baath Party and fedayeen centers of power. In what may prove to be a preview of the battle of Baghdad, U.S. commanders hope to break the grip of the Saddam loyalists without breaking the cities themselves.

In the Muslim holy city of Najaf, that task has fallen to the "Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Airborne Division. On April 1 and 2, for instance, the 101st called in an air strike that destroyed the Baath Party headquarters; the unit then launched a partial incursion with 500 soldiers into a neighborhood on the outskirts of town, where they were greeted as liberators. "I don't know if we'll have to take the city neighborhood by neighborhood or not," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st. "But I do know these people need to see us and believe we're willing to stay."

At a checkpoint on the outskirts of Najaf, the ominous ambiguities of that mission were on clear display. Ever since a car bomb killed four U.S. soldiers at a similar checkpoint, and a misunderstanding at another checkpoint led U.S. troops to fire on a vanload of civilians, killing seven women and children, these focal points of friction between Arabs and Americans have become increasingly tense. While a pair of 101st soldiers checked a vehicle at Najaf, another was searching two men, as well as a woman in traditional Islamic garb and veil.

In a gesture of intended respect, a young U.S. soldier signaled to the man to have his wife simply shake her arms so it would be clear that the woman was not concealing a bomb beneath her robes. The more uncomprehending the Iraqi's expression became, the louder the soldier spoke and the harder he flapped his arms, looking every bit the "Screaming Eagle" of his division's namesake. Behind them in the distance, two 101st helicopters were clearly visible, swooping near and banking around the golden dome of the Najaf mosque, the resting place of the prophet Mohammed's son-in-law.

What the two Iraqis and the American soldiers surmised from this, their first encounter with one another, was impossible to read behind expressions of bewilderment. With its confusing, tragicomic, and potentially lethal interplay of modernity and ancient tradition, the entire scene seemed an apt metaphor for the Iraq war: two very different cultures in a collision from which neither seems destined to emerge unscathed.


By James Kitfield

April 4, 2003

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