The Attack Begins
In the air and on the ground.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a five-part series of excerpts from The Iraq War, by John Keegan. Together they comprise chapter six: “The American War.” (The first installment is here, the second here.)

Frantic diplomatic activity was to follow the rejection of 1 March; British as well as American diplomats attempted repeatedly to change the Turks’ minds; but without success. It became clear that if there was to be a northern front to the attack against Saddam it would have to be opened by other means. One was to encourage the peshmergas–divided into two main political groupings–to intensify their attacks; a second was to support them with special forces; a third was to bring more conventional intervention forces into the region–both the insertion of special forces and other troops would require the creation of an ‘air bridge’, a difficult logistic and delicate diplomatic task; a fourth was to use subversive means to persuade Saddam that the Turks would eventually fall in with the Americans after all.

The story of the creation of the peshmerga-cum-special forces-cum-intervention units front belongs later in the story. The subversive campaign was part of the preliminary planning. General Franks told me that, when it became clear that the Turkish parliamentary position could not be shifted, his headquarters turned to poisoning channels of communication it had with the Iraqi high command. Through intelligence networks, the Saddam leadership was informed that the American military had activated its own contacts with the Turkish army and was confident of the generals bringing the parliamentarians to see sense. This was an intrinsically convincing and persuasive story. Historically the Turkish army had always had the last word in the Kemalist state; its leadership was strongly pro-American (though less pro-British) and pro-NATO; it also retained something of its old imperialist attitude to its former Arab subjects. The Arabs, for their part, held the Turkish army in healthy respect; they recognized its formidable fighting power and were highly conscious of its ability to bring politicians to heel when that was thought to be in the national interest. Indeed, under Nuri al-Sa’id, who embodied Ottoman military tradition, they had had first-hand experience of the interventionist power of generals in state affairs. As a result the subtle subversion of intelligence channels paid off. American intelligence peddled the story that, if only at the last moment, the Turkish parliament would bow to military pressure and agree to grant transit rights to American troops; and, as a result, Saddam judged it too dangerous to withdraw his regular forces from Kurdistan, thus assuring indirectly some if not all of the effect that would have been achieved by positioning 4th Infantry Division in the north.

Nevertheless, General Franks’s Central Command headquarters, located for the coming operation at Doha in Qatar, had to plan the invasion of Iraq as a one-front operation, with the attacking forces launched into Iraqi territory from the extreme south. Thanks to the steadfast co-operation of the Kuwaitis, the two large American formations, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and 3rd Infantry Division, could be positioned to cross directly into Iraq over the Iraqi-Kuwait frontier, as could the heavy part of the British contingent. The other part, the British 3rd Commando Brigade, would land by sea from the Gulf onto the Fao peninsula south of Baghdad, together with American troops, all tasked to seize the port of Umm Qasr and capture the rich Rumaila oil fields before the wells could be set afire. The British contingent, heavy and light elements together, would then advance to seize Basra, Iraq’s second city, while the American Marines and 3rd Mechanized Division set out northward to defeat the Iraqi army and seize the capital of Baghdad.

There lay the second problem. Not only is Iraq a difficult country to invade from the south, because of the narrowness of the point of entry, it is also a difficult country to conquer, because of the distance from the point of entry to Baghdad, over 300 miles to the north. Not only is distance an obstacle; so too is the intervening geography. Iraq–or Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers–is both encircled and defended by the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris, which combine at Basra to form the Shatt el-Arab estuary. The rivers meander, spill out into the floodplain and collect tributaries, so that any invader making his way northward is confronted by the need either to capture bridges if he is to advance or to bridge himself if the permanent bridges are destroyed. The two main highways northward, Routes 1 and 7, follow the Euphrates and Tigris respectively, but an invader must also get control of the interconnections, Routes 17 and 27, and such parallel highways as Routes 8 and 9. The land is almost completely flat; between Baghdad and Basra it descends only 34 metres in 338 kilometres (112 feet in 210 miles). The flatness of the river plain theoretically permits speed but also exposes the invader to defensive fire at long range whenever a built-up area impedes the advance.

One method of ensuring rapidity of advance was to repeat the pattern of the First Gulf War and precede ground operations by a prolonged and crushing air offensive. There were good reasons to judge such an operation undesirable. In 1991 the Iraqi army had been deployed by Saddam beyond the borders of his own territory in unvegetated and uninhabited desert. Its positions were clearly marked to observation by overflying coalition aircraft by the entrenchments, including high sand berms, thrown up by the Iraqi invaders of Kuwait. While they invited bombardment, they provided little protection to their occupants. The result was that between 17 January and 24 February 1991 the Iraqi invaders were devastated by a relentless campaign of heavy bombing, supplemented by point attacks on exposed equipment by strike aircraft. Enormous damage was inflicted on Iraqi military personnel exclusively, without any ‘collateral’ effect on civilian targets.
In 2003 the air forces, particularly the USAF, argued energetically for a repetition of the 1991 air campaign. General Franks opposed the scheme. He had several reasons for so doing. First was the geographical factor. Though in 1991 the air campaign undoubtedly so softened the defences that the ground forces thereafter had little to do, its effect was enhanced by the concentration of the Iraqi army in a confined area.

In 2003, by contrast, the Iraqi forces were dispersed widely across Iraqi national territory, did not present a ‘target-rich’ strike pattern and invited ‘collateral’ damage to civilian targets that would have ensured a hostile media reaction. Second, there was the time factor. A prolonged preliminary air campaign would have given Saddam room to mobilize Middle Eastern and Third World opinion against the war, as well as the opportunity to sabotage his own oil facilities and cause widespread ecological damage by flooding the Gulf with emissions of crude oil. Third, an air campaign protracted in time would have put the Iraqi army on alert, heightened its responses and perhaps made the subsequent ground campaign less rather than more easy to win. Finally, by opening the war with a time-consuming air campaign, while the ground troops remained massed in the constricted area of Kuwait, Saddam would be given both opportunity and cause to use weapons of mass destruction against them. Belief in Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction not only provided the motivation for the war but, in the preliminary stages, heavily influenced the strategy by which it would be fought.

The strategy eventually chosen, therefore, was for a brief air campaign timed to coincide with the initial ground attack. Its distinctive characteristic–and the justification for its brevity–was to be the very precision of the weaponry delivered. Since 1991 there had been a revolution in accuracy, promising the results sought by air forces since the dawn of strategic bombing but only rarely achieved. In the First Gulf War only ten per cent of the munitions delivered by air, whether air-dropped bombs, air-launched missiles or sea- or land-launched cruise missiles, had been ’smart’. In the Iraq War, the proportion was to be seventy per cent, the majority guided either by laser or by Global Positioning Satellite (GPS). The first system requires the target to be identified by laser illumination, which the munition detects, the second is directed very precisely to a chosen spot on the ground. An important development since 1991 was that of fitting guidance systems to munitions which lacked propulsion, thus turning a ‘dumb’ bomb into a weapon as accurate as a cruise-missile at a fraction of its cost. One was the Joint Stand Off Weapon (JSOW), another the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). A third weapon, CBU-97 WCMD (Cluster Bomb Unit 97 Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser), ejected armour-penetrating bomblets from a height, which then guided themselves onto the thin upper armour of vehicles within their search area.

The ready availability of such high-precision weapons, delivered by aircraft as diverse as the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the B-1 and the veteran B-52, averted the need to stage blanket bombardments which had preceded the First Gulf War or to attack civilian infrastructure targets, such as power stations, a programme that had attracted a bad press during the anti-Milosevic operations in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. The air war could be, and was, directed almost exclusively at military targets, though in the opening stage, widely described as that of ’shock and awe’, the headquarters and administrative buildings of the Iraqi government and Ba’ath party were deemed to be military targets. General Franks, in the aftermath of the war, denied to me that he had ever sought to create ’shock and awe’ or include those effects in his strategic plan.

The plan foresaw the disarming of Iraqi forces by air action while the ground offensive was in its early stage of development. Even before the ground forces had begun to move, however, General Franks had begun to neutralize Iraqi resistance by subversive activity against the command structure of the Iraqi divisions directly opposed to the coalition forces across the Iraq-Kuwait border. Intelligence agents had got into contact with the commanders of the six Iraqi divisions deployed furthest south, including the 51st Mechanized, and the 11th Infantry, and had urged them not to fight–with, according to General Franks, some success. Certainly, once the coalition began to push forward, the Iraqi divisions in the south melted away without offering serious resistance.

General Franks meanwhile was also inserting special forces through the frontier defences with orders to reach and neutralize the key bridges across the rivers. He assigned forty-eight special forces groups to these and other tasks, the majority American but including British and Australian units also. Special Operations Task Force 20, supported by an American Ranger regiment, and numbering 4,000 men, operated in the Iraqi desert west of the Euphrates, with the aim of cutting Iraqi routes into Syria and taking possession of the ‘Scud pans’. The Scud, though a mobile system, needs to be erected on an area of hard ground against which its rocket gases can push. Such ‘pans’ are comparatively few and widely scattered in the desert area. During the First Gulf War special forces attempted to attack the Scud threat by finding and eliminating the launchers themselves, a frustrating task given the ease with which they could be moved and hidden. The decision, in the Iraq war, to focus attention on potential launch sites proved much more fruitful. Very few of Saddam’s surviving Scuds were launched against coalition targets and none against surrounding countries, such as Israel.

The conventional offensive had more substantial objectives. There were to be two main thrusts, by 3rd Infantry Division out of Kuwait up the Euphrates valley, with the division’s vehicles covering ground across the desert before swinging back to join the main roads and advance on Baghdad via Karbala. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force would simultaneously push up from Kuwait along Route 1, via Jalibal and Nasiriyah, between the Euphrates and Tigris, but send one of its regiments to reach the Tigris at Kut (scene of a British military disaster at the hands of the Turks in the First World War) before taking Route 6, also to arrive at Baghdad. Task Force Tarawa would shadow 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to secure the southern towns. Troops of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Air Assault Divisions would intervene to secure objectives short of Baghdad. In a separate operation altogether, the British 1st (UK) Armoured Division, with its air assault and commando brigades, would seize and secure the lower waters of the great rivers and capture Basra, Iraq’s second city. The operations were planned in great detail, a key element being the preparation of re-supply. American forces excel at logistics. The advance of both 3rd Infantry Division and 1st MEF was predicated on the principle of their advancing at the highest possible speed, brushing aside resistance and halting to fight only when absolutely necessary, but pausing at regular intervals of a day or two for the logistic train of fuel, ammunition and re-supply vehicles to make good their wants in a rapid disgorging of necessities. British observers who travelled with the Americans have testified to the awesomeness of the spectacle. ‘The armour had halted,’ a British colonel described to me, ‘dozens of vehicles abreast in the first line and dozens more in the lines behind them. Suddenly out of the dust appeared every logistic vehicle you can imagine, tankers, water bowsers, ammunition trucks, mobile repair workshops, ration trucks. As they stopped, crews began connecting up hoses, hoisting pallets, throwing off crates. The contents were seized by the combat troops and disappeared inside the fighting vehicles as fast as they could be stowed. Sooner than you could imagine the combat echelon was re-supplied and ready to move forward again.’ Re-supply, quite as much as firepower or air support, was to be the secret of the coalition’s overwhelming of Saddam’s forces.

The first objective of the coalition attack, however, did not require any large logistic effort to be reached, for it lay just inside Iraqi territory from the coalition concentration area in Kuwait. It was the Rumaila oil fields, after the great Kirkuk-Mosul fields in Kurdistan the richest in Iraq: about a thousand wells, occupying an area fifty miles long below Basra and parallel to the border with Iran. The most valuable of the fields pumped over two million barrels a day from over 300 wells, through twelve gas-oil separation plants, to a main pumping station at Zubayr, from which it was sent to the terminal in the Fao peninsula. It was vital to seize the gas-oil separation plants and the pumping station undamaged, since the postwar reconstruction of Iraq would require their output, which earned $40 million a day.

A team from 1st Battalion 7th Marines (1/7) was chosen to seize the installations and a detailed reconnaissance carried out, providing the attackers with a computer-simulated picture of the layout of the objectives and satellite photographs of the surroundings. The British provided a team of experts from the oil companies which had installed the machinery in the 1950s to take over as soon as the buildings were seized, check the machinery for sabotage and put it back into operation as quickly as possible.

On the day of the attack, 20 March, advanced 24 hours because of a last-minute decision to open the air attack on Baghdad early, 1/7 crossed the sand barriers marking the border between Iraq and Kuwait and, in the centre of an extended line of fifty battalion-sized units, moving on a front of fifty kilometres (31 miles), raced towards the Rumaila fields. To the marines’ left was 3rd Infantry Division, to their right 1st (UK) Armoured Division. By early afternoon of March 21, 1/7 were in an attacking position, sixty kilometres inside Iraq and five short of their objective. They had met sporadic resistance and seen some knocked-out Iraqi armour but had not been seriously opposed. Suddenly, round a corner, the pumping station appeared to their front. The commander of C Company, 1/7, the sub-unit charged with the actual capture, halted his men while he made an appreciation. It was crucial not to start a fire-fight which might detonate tons of highly flammable oil and gas in the pipes. Ordering his vehicles’ engines to be switched off, he listened. All he could hear was shouting from inside the perimeter wall and all he could see were civilian workers milling about. Realizing with a flash of inspiration that they had shut the pumping equipment down, averting the risk of inflammation, he gave the order to assault. An engineer team blew a hole in the perimeter wall, his riflemen poured through. Another gap was opened in a wire fence. Within minutes the riflemen had seized the buildings inside and begun to round up the civilian workers. There were no military defenders. The British industrial experts were brought forward to examine the machinery. They reported that there had been some amateur sabotage but nothing that could not be easily repaired. Half an hour after the assault had begun the position was secured.

Later, at a short distance from the objective, 1/7 found twelve T-54 tanks and a collection of Soviet-supplied armoured fighting vehicles. They were securely dug in but had not fired their guns and had been abandoned by their crews, some of whom came out of hiding to surrender to the marines. It was an augury of the character of the fighting that was to unfold in the following days. Smoke rose from a few wellheads that had been torched but the oil fields and their vital machinery were intact. The operation to capture what had been christened ‘the Crown Jewels’ had been an outstanding success.

On 22 March the great ground armada proceeded north. The plan was for the British, with objectives in the Fao peninsula and then the prime aim of taking and occupying Basra, to wheel right, while 1st MEF and the army’s V Corps, of which 3rd Infantry Division was the main element, struck towards Baghdad. The enemy opposing the coalition forces were estimated at eight divisions. One, the 51st, had been destroyed or had disbanded itself during the fighting in the oil fields. By American estimation, its personnel had largely deserted. Desertion was thought to have occurred in two waves, encouraged by intelligence contact with the divisional commander. The first wave of desertions had been prompted by fear of coalition air attack and had happened despite its absence. The second wave, among the more stalwart, had begun when the sound of approaching American tanks was heard. The Iraqi soldiers, who were from the locality, had simply dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms and fled home.

After the collapse of 51st Division, five others remained in the south, stationed along the Tigris river. The marines were to stage a feint in their direction, a feint supported by the British move on Basra, and then to turn west into the central plain, leaving the Iraqis bypassed while 1st MEF and Task Force Tarawa pressed on towards Baghdad. The lead elements of 1st MEF were to concentrate against the town of Nasiriyah, where they would cross the Euphrates and proceed north to engage the two Republican Guard divisions defending the capital.

John Keegan’s books include Intelligence in War and The Mask of Command. He is the defense editor of The Daily Telegraph (London) and lives in Wiltshire, England. Visit the publisher’s website here.