Politics & Policy

Bumps in The Road

Unexpected difficulty in Nasiriyah; a dust storm; a shortage of supplies.

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

Nasiriyah is an important crossing place over the Euphrates. A combat historian travelling with 1st MEF described it as ‘a dingy, neglected collection of one- and two-storey cinder-block and mud houses sandwiched in square city blocks between the river and the Saddam Canal to the north. In essence an island two and a half miles square, Nasiriyah had bridges on its north and south ends: two on Route 7 through the heart of the city, and two on Route 8–called Route Moe by Task Force Tarawa–that skirted the city’s eastern border.’ The plan to take and secure Nasiriyah had been made aboard ship by the staff of Task Force Tarawa, commanding 2nd and 8th Marines, before the deployment began. It required 1st Battalion 2nd Marines (1/2) to pass through the eastern edge of the city and seize one of the northern bridges. It was to be followed by another battalion which would secure the city allowing the 1st MEF–comprising the three regimental combat teams formed from 1st, 4th, 5th and 7th Marines–to pass through and continue the advance northward. There was to be plentiful helicopter and artillery support, and armour would also be available.

#ad#Careful planning failed, in circumstances fortunately unique during the Iraq War, to deliver the desired result. There was to be an unforeseen battle for Nasiriyah and it was to take a messy and costly form, seized on gleefully by anti-American elements in the Western media to demonstrate that the war was not going the coalition’s way. The Marines had anticipated trouble in Nasiriyah. They had even coined the term ‘Ambush Alley’ to describe what they expected there. Trouble came but not of the sort anticipated. The defending division, the 11th, deserted, as predicted. What the Marines had been led to believe was that the population was pro-Saddam. That was not so; they had risen against him in 1991, had been severely punished and had learnt prudence. Just as bad, however, was what occurred instead. Nasiriyah was chosen by the Ba’ath party and Saddam’s various militias as a productive place in which to stage resistance. During 22-23 March, fedayeen fighters began to arrive in the town by private transport–cars, motorcycles, taxis–and in Ba’ath party commandeered buses. Many of the fighters were not Iraqis but extremists from other Arab countries, poorly trained but anxious to die in a war against the West. They brought their usual paraphernalia–RPG-7 grenade launchers, Kalashnikov assault rifles and explosive charges.

Neither side was properly organized to conduct the battle that ensued. The Iraqi fighters were outsiders and lacked the local knowledge necessary to put Nasiriyah into a state of defence. On the other hand, the Americans had no desire to capture Nasiriyah. They merely wished to pass through as quickly as possible, seize the bridges and clear routes for the convoys following in their rear. It was a recipe for confusion and confusion quickly followed.

Three concentrations of American forces were converging on the Nasiriyah area: the 3rd Infantry Division in the lead, with its long logistic tail following; the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force; and Task Force Tarawa. They got intermingled. In darkness and swirling dust, a supply unit of 3rd Infantry Division, 507th Maintenance Company, missed a turning, drove into Nasiriyah towards the eastern bridge over the Euphrates and was shot up. Nine soldiers were killed and six captured. One was a woman, Private Jessica Lynch, who was to become an unwitting heroine of the Iraq War.

The news of 507th’s misadventure filtered back to Task Force Tarawa, still south of the city, which despatched 1st Battalion 2nd Marines (1/2) with a tank company to rescue the 507th’s survivors. It quickly got involved in street fighting, which slowed its progress, and its companies got separated. Five servicemen of the 507th were found alive, however, and later the burnt-out remains of their trucks. It was by then noon and 1/2’s commander, under pressure to hasten the advance from higher command, gave orders to rush the eastern bridge. His A Company seized it and B Company passed across but itself took a wrong turning beyond, found itself in a firefight with fedayeen and bogged several of its vehicles in soft ground. Meanwhile C Company tried to secure a farther bridge across the Saddam Canal. Half the company got across but a hit by an RPG set a vehicle in the centre of the column afire, leaving four of its amphibious tractors on one side, seven on the other. A large party of fedayeen appeared and began firing automatic weapons and grenade launchers at the stalled unit, killing several and wounding more. As officers and sergeants tried to organize a return of fire and evacuate the wounded, an American A-10 anti-tank aircraft passed overhead, shooting up several marine vehicles and wounding an already wounded marine; A-10 pilots had caused several serious ‘friendly fire’ incidents involving British troops during the First Gulf War but they had hitherto avoided attacking their own. Soon after the A-10 pass, two more amphibious tractors were blown up, apparently by Iraqi fire, and shooting continued throughout the afternoon. Not until five o’clock, when A Company appeared with tank support, did the fighting die down. It had been a horrible day for 1/2, an episode of military confusion almost at its worst. There was little blame to apportion, and the Iraqis could take no credit for their success. Their resistance was not planned or co-ordinated. They had merely profited from their enemy’s ignorance of local geography and choice of wrong turnings. The battle of Nasiriyah was a catalogue of errors.

The flavour of the fighting was caught by the account of Evan Wright, Rolling Stone’s reporter with 1st MEF’s reconnaissance battalion.

Just after sunrise our seventy-vehicle convoy rolls over the bridge on the Euphrates and enters An Nasiriyah. It’s one of those sprawling Third World mud-brick-and-cinder-block cities that probably looks pretty badly rubbled even on a good day. This morning, smoke curls from collapsed structures. Most buildings facing the road are pockmarked and cratered. Cobras (helicopters) fly overhead spilling machine-gun fire. Dogs roam the ruins . . . A few vehicles come under machine-gun and RPG fire. The [Marines] return fire and redecorate a building with about a dozen grenades fired from a Mark 19 [automatic grenade launcher]. In an hour we clear the outer limits of the city and start to head north. Dead bodies are scattered along the edge of the road. Most are men, enemy fighters, still with weapons in their hands . . . . There are shot-up cars with bodies hanging over the edges. We pass a bus smashed and burned, with charred remains sitting upright in some windows. There’s a man with no head in the road and a dead little girl, too, about three or four, lying on her back. She’s wearing a dress and has no legs.

Another reporter, Andrew North of the BBC, described the last evening of the fighting,

[We’re] on the city’s southern outskirts, near a fly-infested rubbish dump. Suddenly there was a screeching sound and four bright dots in the sky–Iraqi rockets heading our way. ‘Get down!’ someone shouted and everyone scattered, looking desperately for cover. Machine guns opened up as more rockets landed. When it was over, thirty marines had been injured, many in friendly fire because of the confusion. The Iraqis had used the cover of a sandstorm to get in close and mount another surprise assault.

’Assault’ is a misnomer, a typical misuse of military language by a media man inexperienced in the events of warfare. An assault is a combination of fire and movement, culminating in an attempt to capture a position by troops pressing to close quarters. Assault was not the Iraqis’ style. Almost always they kept their distance, loosing off rounds haphazard and unsighted, dodging in and out of cover and hoping to inflict casualties by luck rather than skill.

The Marines, by contrast, did assault frequently once it had become clear, on the second and third day of the battle, that the city would have to be captured if its streets were to be secured for the passage of supply columns. In retrospect it would have been better to bypass Nasiriyah rather than allow it to become a bottleneck, by bridging the Euphrates below or above the position it occupied on the river. The bridging equipment was available, brought from the United States by specialist National Guard units from the southern states, where they practised the skills on the enormous waterways of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Whilst bridges were available, however, roads were not. The hard fact of the matter was that the roads north led through Nasiriyah and had to be taken if the speed of advance were to be maintained at a pace that would guarantee the rapid fall of the Saddam régime. So during 23-24 March Task Force Tarawa established a cordon around the city to prevent the infiltration of fresh bands of fighters and set about finding, capturing or killing the fedayeen and Ba’athists who were sustaining the resistance. As Task Force Tarawa passed into the city and began to demonstrate an American presence, its task was eased by the garnering of local intelligence. As snipers killed fedayeen in ambush positions, and special forces accompanying the task force seized control of dominant buildings and city blocks, the Shi’ite residents, who had no reason to love the Ba’ath or Saddam after his brutal repression of their community, began to supply information about the location of fedayeen positions and supply stores. The Marines on the ground were supported by Marine helicopter and aircraft crews in the air overhead. Piece by piece, the Iraqi control of the city started to collapse.

An encouraging and instantly celebrated benefit of Task Force Tarawa’s action was the recovery of Private Jessica Lynch from captivity. A very brave Iraqi, discovering that she was being held in a local hospital, where she had been taken wounded, visited the building to assess how closely she was guarded and then informed the Americans of what he had found. A snatch squad of marines, Navy SEALs (sea-air-land commandos) and army Rangers was formed, which successfully surrounded her place of captivity, staged a diversion to draw off her captors and extracted her to safety. The rescue was a model of how a small-scale military operation should be conducted. The same could not be said of media treatment of the event or of her story. Private Lynch was transformed into a Hollywood heroine, who had fought to the last round and then been barbarically mistreated. The truth was that, though she had undoubtedly defended herself and been badly wounded, she had little memory of her ordeal and her captors had treated her with care and consideration. The real hero of the episode, the Iraqi who had been instrumental in saving her, received little of the media credit he was due.

Not until the last days of March did Task Force Tarawa succeed in suppressing all resistance in Nasiriyah, securing the city and making it safe for the long supply columns following the marine spearhead racing towards Baghdad to transit safely. The local element of the spearhead, to which Task Force Tarawa was acting as ‘force protection’, was 1st Marines, the main element of 1st Regimental Combat Team (RCT 1). Its mission once clear of Nasiriyah was to push on up Route 7, the main highway through the central valley, as far as Kut, on the Tigris, where it expected to find the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard. After defeating or otherwise disposing of that division, it was to regroup for the final drive on the capital. Beyond Kut it would be rejoined by 5th and 7th Marines (RCT 5 and 7), which were scheduled to proceed in parallel to its left, up Route 1 until, beyond Dinaniyah, they would, at a point denoted as ‘the Elbow’, leave Route 1 and cross the central plain on Route 27 to concentrate with RCT 1 and advance on Sabat. Simultaneously the 3rd Infantry Division would move on the marines’ left up the Euphrates to reach the ‘Karbala gap’ between that city and Route 8, from which it would also launch its assault on Baghdad.

Nothing in war is predictable. Two factors now intervened to set back the timetable. One was the weather. The other was a shortage of supplies reaching 3rd Infantry Division. The supply shortage was subject to human correction. The weather was not. During the fight for Nasiriyah a dust storm–a shamal–began to blow, turning daytime to dusk and interfering with observation. As the lead elements of 1st MEF left the city and headed up Route 7 towards Kut, the shamal grew in strength. Iraq’s central valley, between the rivers, is an alluvial plain, its fertility renewed each year by silt brought by the snowmelt off the northern Zagros mountains. Immediately after winter much of the surface disappears under water, which lies in huge, shifting, shallow lakes. As the lakes disperse and dry, the silt lies loose on the surface, ready to be whipped up and driven in cutting clouds by the spring gales. All the invaders had suffered from dust clouds–sand in the Kuwait desert–as soon as they began to move. They had wrapped cloths around their heads to keep it out, to little effect. The sand, then the airborne silt, had penetrated everything, clogged mouths and lungs and caused an epidemic of coughing and spitting. The silt was worse than the sand. Because it carried a high concentration of decayed vegetable matter, it caused the soldiers to suffer low-grade fevers which lasted for several days until the sufferers adapted. The machinery did not adapt, nor did night-vision devices. Machinery clogged, sights could not penetrate the gloom. The march north from Nasiriyah was a misery, slowed by the dust storms which at times turned wet and cold as sleet and hail mixed in. At one stage, just north of Nasiriyah, the fedayeen profited from the conditions to stage a blocking attack. The high command in Baghdad had apparently heard of the marines’ difficulties in the city and organized reinforcements to join the battle. Arriving in civilian transport, and too late, they were stopped on Route 7 but manfully debussed, deployed and conducted one of the few genuine fire-and-movement engagements the Marines encountered anywhere in Iraq. It lasted two hours and left all the fedayeen, almost sixty in number, dead.

Even in the dust storm the three marine regimental combat teams pressed on, RCT 1 up Route 7, RCT 5 and 7 up Route 1 to its left, while the 3rd Infantry Division was moving with RCT 5 and 7 towards Karbala and the Baghdad outskirts. On 26 March, however, the command of 3rd Infantry Division, which had overextended its resources, decided that it would have to halt for resupply. The Marines, who have a tradition of travelling lighter than the army, did not need to pause. The divisional commander, Major General James Mattis, had arranged for C-130 tactical transport aircraft, carrying, 5,000-gallon fuel bladders, to land on the hard surface of Route 1, allowing the division’s vehicles to top up on the line of march.

The advance had, however, to be co-ordinated. Army and marine formations could not get out of phase. The capture of Baghdad could be guaranteed only if the two main formations, 3rd Infantry and 1st MEF, arrived at the final line of departure simultaneously. Feeble though Iraqi resistance was, the better Iraqi divisions, the Republican Guard, still lay to their front. They must not be offered the opportunity to engage the American forces in sequence, but must be forced to fight a solid concentration, and to do so under heavy air attack by the coalition air forces. A pause was necessary.

It was arranged on Thursday 27 March at 1st MEF headquarters by General James Conway, its commanding general, General William Wallace, commanding V Corps (3rd Infantry Division and attached army brigades) and General McKiernan (overall ground commander). Because the Marines were not short of supplies, they were reluctant to break the momentum of their advance. In the master plan, however, they were supporting V Corps, not conducting an independent mission. It was therefore agreed that they should pause, so as not to lose contact with 3rd Infantry Division, and that their lead element, RCT 5, should actually retrace its steps for twenty-three miles, having got too far ahead. There was an underswell of complaint among the Marines. They had heard that Wallace and McKiernan were both close friends and logistics experts, and suspected that they preferred to work by the book. The Marines knew that the USMC and the army worked by different rules. They regarded their own, which pared supply scales to the bone and ultimately allowed only for the movement of fuel, ammunition, food and water, as superior. They were also alarmed by rumours that the pause might last longer than the seventy-two to ninety-six hours officially forecast. Hints picked up from the BBC and American domestic radio suggested a pause of as much as eighteen to twenty-one days. To the Marines, who had made exceptional progress despite having to overcome resistance, and who felt the way ahead to be open if pressure were maintained, the prospect of a pause was highly unwelcome. Their commanders felt the same, seeing that the plan might be changed to make their thrust the main effort, with V Corps assuming the support role.

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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