Politics & Policy

Preparing For Attack

Iraq is not an easy country to invade.

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

In the expeditionary force the chain of command led from General Franks via General McKiernan to two subordinate formations, V Corps, part of Third Army, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. V Corps consisted of 3rd Infantry Division, parts of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), a brigade of 82nd Airborne Division, to which was later added 173rd Airborne Brigade and parts of 4th Infantry Division. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was composed of 1st Marine Division, Task Force Tarawa, which was a reinforced marine brigade, and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

An infantry division is an armoured division in all but name, fielding 270 Abrams tanks as well as self-propelled artillery, a large infantry component mounted in Bradley fighting vehicles and an integral unit of Apache helicopter gunships. It has the ability to form itself rapidly into battle groups–typically a Bradley battalion and a tank battalion–for tasks demanded by the changing tactical situation, and to subdivide its artillery to provide battle group support. Its helicopters are trained to operate on the ‘cab rank’ principle, answering calls to provide overhead support at short notice. The division could also call on air support from air force or navy squadrons, though those were not under command.

The Marine Expeditionary Force was organized differently, achieving a high degree of integration between its ground and air components. A marine air wing’s aircraft are flown by marine pilots; wing and division are permanently associated. Marine divisions have long histories; 1st Marine Division had fought in the First World War and taken part in most of the great island battles of the Pacific War of 1942-45, as had its sub-units, 1st Marines, 4th Marines, 5th Marines and 7th Marines. These Marine regiments, like old-style British infantry regiments, have several battalions, with long and distinguished histories. 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, for example, had fought at Guadalcanal and Pelelieu, bitter struggles with the Japanese in which it had won cherished battle honours. 1st Marine Division’s infantry battalions were organized into three regimental combat teams, 1, 5 and 7 RCT, comprising 3rd/1st, 1st/4th and 2nd/23rd Marines, 1st, 2nd and 3rd/5th Marines and 1st and 3rd/7th Marines and 3rd/4th Marines. Each RCT also included a tank and a light armoured reconnaissance battalion and amphibious armour (Amtracs) from 2nd and 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalions. The divisional artillery was provided by three battalions of 11th Marines and combat engineers by 1st Marine Engineer Battalion.

It is the uniformly ‘Marine’ character of the three United States Marine Corps divisions that give them their formidable fighting power. Even in the highly cohesive modern US Army, slight fault lines exist between infantry, armour, artillery and helicopter units; they are recruited separately and trained separately, at camps owned by the branch to which they belong. Marines, by contrast, all join together and train together and are Marines before they are infantry, armour or artillery. The mythology of the Marines, expressed in the Marine Hymn and the motto, Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful), together with a litany of Corps slogans–including ‘A Marine Never Dies’–has poetic truth. If a recruit chooses to think otherwise, he will be put straight by the long-service NCO of the Corps, gunnery sergeants and sergeant-majors, who are tradition’s ultimate guardians. Marines are admired throughout the American armed forces and beyond, particularly by the British army and Royal Marines, who served with the USMC in Korea and the First Gulf War.

The 1st Marine Division and the 3rd Infantry Division provided General Franks with his main force for the drive on Baghdad. There were ancillary units. Some came from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). The two are sister formations. Raised during the Second World War as parachute divisions, with a complement of glider infantry, they had dropped on the night of 5-6 June 1944 on the western flank of the Normandy bridgehead to open the invasion of Europe. Subsequently their glider infantry battalions had been disbanded, gliders proving too vulnerable to ground fire, and the 101st had eventually given up parachuting to become entirely heliborne, with a heavy complement of gunships to cover infantry landing at the point of assault. For the Iraq War the 101st deployed as a nearly complete formation, the 82nd provided a brigade. Also deployed was the 173rd, a ’separate’ parachute brigade which dropped into Kurdistan to provide conventional support to the peshmerga guerrillas.

The other large formation available to General Franks was the British 1st (UK) Armoured Division, a hastily assembled formation consisting of the 7th Armoured Brigade, which had fought in the First Gulf War, the 16th Air Assault Brigade, composed of parachute and helicopter units, and the 3rd Commando Brigade of Royal Marines. Because the Commandos are a light force, trained and equipped for intervention operations, General Franks attached to them the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit, which fielded tanks and helicopter gunships.

The plan for Operation Iraqi Freedom began to be drawn up as early as 1995, when Saddam’s combination of deviousness and intransigence persuaded Washington that it might not be possible to avoid a military confrontation if his determination to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction were to be quashed. The original problem was to choose a point of departure. Iraq is a difficult country to attack. Though it was, under Saddam, on bad terms with all its neighbours–Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Kuwait–all might have reasons for wishing to deny Western governments basing or transit rights. Iran was still, under its ayatollah régime, implacably anti-Western. The monarchical government of Saudi Arabia, closely allied to a puritanical Islamic clerisy and in fear of provoking an anti-Western reaction in its population, was unlikely to offer the same operational facilities as it had done in 1990-91, when Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait had confronted it with the direct threat of Iraqi aggression. Syria, accused by the United States of sponsoring international terrorism, was too hostile to be drawn into an anti-Saddam coalition despite its troubled relations with Iraq. Jordan, though pro-Western, feared for its credentials as an Arab state if it co-operated too closely with a Western incursion into the Middle Eastern world though it would do so covertly. By a process of elimination, therefore, only three points of entry remained. One was Iraq’s own sea coast, a short, constricted and swampy stretch of shoreline at the head of the Gulf; a second was across the Iraqi-Turkish border; and third, the territory of Kuwait. Kuwait, the weakest of all Arab states, was the most likely provider of basing and transit facilities. Not only had it suffered invasion and occupation in 1991, its very right to exist as an independent sovereignty was denied by Saddam, as it had been by several of his predecessors.

It might nevertheless have been feared that Kuwait, for reasons of timorous self-protection, would shy from providing a Western coalition with a place d’armes. It was one thing to host a force that would achieve a victorious blitzkrieg, disposing of Saddam the aggressor forever; another thing altogether to provide military facilities for a crisis that might be settled by negotiation, leaving Saddam still in power, chastened but capable of taking his revenge at some later date when the West’s attention would perhaps be diverted by trouble in another region of the world altogether. It was greatly to Kuwait’s credit that it chose to align itself with the Western coalition from the start and to abide by its choice unflinchingly.

The enigma in the pre-war planning process was Turkey. Though the Turkish population is exclusively Muslim, the state is doctrinally secular and so anti-Islamic, a national ethos determined by the country’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, who had rejected Ottomanism, pan-Turanianism (a movement seeking to unify all Turkic-speaking peoples in and outside the boundaries of modern Turkey) and the Muslim Caliphate. Kemal chose what he identified as the path of nationalism: that his Turkey would impose separation of mosque and state and pursue the path of modernization, which to him meant Westernization. Kemalist Turkey was the only true success among the new states to emerge from the postwar settlement of 1918. It evolved swiftly into a stable polity, free of internal racial or religious conflicts, neutral between the great power blocs yet open to influence from the West and committed to economic development and the education of its people. Kemal entrusted the protection of this system and philosophy to the institution within which he had grown up and come to power, the Turkish army. The army was Kemalist through and through, suspicious of any form of political extremism, even more suspicious of Islamic influence in public life and ready, if it detected any destabilization of the Kemalist settlement, to seize power and restore the balance. The army has exercised political power several times in recent Turkish history but always, when it was satisfied that Kemalist normality had been re-established, has returned to barracks and resigned control to civilian politicians.

Even in secularist Turkey, however, the Islamic mood sweeping the Muslim world had had its effect. While the army and the official class remained faithful to the Kemalist legacy, a religious revival had been gaining ground in the provinces for twenty years. A mosque-building boom had raised new minarets in many towns and villages and Muslim dress, outlawed by Kemal, had re-appeared. In November 2002 an overtly Islamic party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had gained power at the general election. It had new priorities. For fifty years Turkish politics had been dominated by issues scarcely different from those engaging the political class throughout Europe or America: economic advancement, anti-Communism and, more recently, inter-state relationships within the context of continental co-operation. Turkey had early set its sights on securing admission to the European Union, in which it was supported by the United States, grateful as it was for Turkey’s loyal membership of NATO. Only the historic antipathy of Greece to normalizing relations with its former imperial master appeared to stand in the way and even the Greeks seemed persuadable. The election of Erdogan’s party imposed an abrupt change. While the Kemalists would never have done anything to damage relations with Washington, Erdogan was concerned, as an Islamicist, to show his readiness to oppose the United States in a matter involving another Muslim country.

Washington, anticipating difficulty, decided to resort to inducement. Its initial planning for the invasion of Iraq laid heavy emphasis on the need for Turkish co-operation, which it had fully enjoyed in 1990-91. It needed the use of Turkish airspace, which it had had during its operation of the northern ‘no-fly’ zone in the 1990s. It even more urgently needed transit rights through Turkish territory into northern Iraq, for the passage of a major military force able to engage Saddam’s army from a second direction. A division, the 4th Infantry, had been earmarked for the intervention and had been brought by sea from the continental United States to the eastern Mediterranean. Without the Erdogan government’s co-operation, however, it could neither be landed at a Turkish port nor staged southward through Turkish territory. The Erdogan government’s consent would, it was known, be difficult to secure. There was not only the question of its Islamic sympathies. There was also the issue of Turkish attitudes, quite separate from any religious ingredient, to Kurdish politics. The 4th Division’s deployment area would be within Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds, ethnically an Iranian people, Muslim but not Arab, were in the unfortunate position of having a strong sense of national identity but no national territory; their habitat straddled the borders of at least four countries, including Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Within Turkey they were categorized not as a separate minority but as ‘mountain Turks’ and the Ankara government was resolute in treating them, numerous as they were, as ethnic Turks. It feared all developments that would encourage Kurdish separatism, particularly any move to establish Iraqi Kurdistan as a political entity. An American military intervention in the region, which would inevitably entail American military co-operation with the Kurdish guerrilla forces fighting the Baghdad central government, threatened what Turkey most feared.

In the circumstances, it was understandable that the American government should be willing to pay for Ankara’s co-operation. So it showed itself to be; it offered $6 billion in aid as a recompense for the Turkish parliament’s agreement to allow the 4th Infantry Division and other American forces to enter Turkish territory. The inducement was not large enough; perhaps none could have been. The Islamic majority in the new Turkish parliament apparently placed religious affinity above historic political association. On 1 March 2003, the American proposal was rejected. Rather than appear anti-Islamic, the new Turkish parliamentarians were prepared to risk alienating the United States, the defence it had offered through NATO against Soviet Russia, Turkey’s oldest and most formidable enemy, and the support it provided for Turkey’s effort to enter the European Union.

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.

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.


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