Politics & Policy

Next Stop: Baghdad

The liberation of Iraq is almost complete.

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

Changing plans in mid-campaign is not, however, to be recommended, unless there is an overwhelmingly powerful reason. At that stage of the Iraq War, there was no such reason. The enemy was not exerting significant resistance and was still vulnerable to the offensive effort General Franks had planned at the outset. It was therefore decided to proceed as foreseen, with the following differences. First, it would be necessary to clear up the tactical situation along the line of advance, reaching back to Nasiriyah; to do so, V Corps would deploy its reserves, 2 Brigade of 82nd Airborne Division, 2 and 3 Brigades of 101st Air Assault Division, to fight local battles at towns along Route 1. Second, the logistic organization would dump forward 3-4 days’ supply. Third, the divisions would have to organize reconnaissance in force, ahead of the main columns, to establish the strength and whereabouts of the defenders of Baghdad.

The 3rd Infantry Division, travelling partly on hard desert rather than paved roads to the west of the Euphrates, had already outstripped the 1st MEF to reach Najaf, short of its penultimate objective, the Karbala gap, between Karbala and Lake Razzazah, from which the route lay towards the capital. It had had difficulties, particularly during an attack by 11th Helicopter Regiment, supporting 3rd Infantry Division, on the supposed positions of the Medina Republican Guard Division near Najaf. Flying in appalling weather, the precursor of the great shamal, the 11th Helicopter Regiment had also had difficulty in refuelling and difficulty with its communications, having to rely at a critical stage on a single satellite radio link. As a result, the number of missions to be flown had to be reduced, as did the number of designated targets to be attacked. In the circumstances it was not surprising that the American helicopters flew into trouble, being engaged by heavy ground fire from the Medina Division’s positions; what was surprising was that only one of the thirty-two attacking Apache helicopters was shot down; many others, however, were hit and damaged.

The brigades of the two airborne divisions, 82nd and 101st, had great success in their mission to clear the left flank of the advance and suppress resistance in the towns, particularly Samawah and Najaf, on 3rd Infantry Division’s right. The advance elements were supported by the 69th Tank Battalion and the famed 7th Cavalry, Custer’s regiment at the Little Big Horn. The best reported of the engagements, however, was that of 325th Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. The 325th had originally been glider infantry and had landed on the Cotentin peninsula on D-Day in 1944. Going to battle by glider had, even by the end of the Second World War, been recognized as too dangerous a means of transit to combat to be continued; the role of the glider infantryman was seen to be hazardous at best and little short of suicidal at worst. The glider regiments of 82nd and 101st Divisions, while keeping their numbers, were found other roles, either as parachute or heliborne units.

The 325th had begun the campaign on 25 March in Kuwait, then advanced, some of its personnel by road, some by helicopter, first to Tallil military air base inside Iraq and then to Samawah on the Euphrates, north-west of Nasiriyah. Halted short of Samawah on 27-28 March while the brigade plans and executes operations against the town, commanders and staff officers, observed by Karl Zinsmeister, an embedded journalist from American Enterprise magazine, discuss the appropriate degree of firepower to unleash. They are working on intelligence supplied by the CIA, which has local contacts, and reports that a meeting between two high-level Ba’ath party officials, organizing Samawah’s defence, is about to take place in a building to their front. The brigade intelligence officer and its judge advocate general, the legal officer responsible for enforcing rules of engagement, review the issues. ‘We’ve learned from [our] source that Muhayfen Halwan, the number-one Ba’ath party official in the Salwan region down on the Saudi border has come up to meet with Sultan Al-Sayf, the number-two guy in this region. As of 0915 this morning they were planning future ops in this compound.’

Intense discussion follows. There is a school 145 yards from the target, others within 220 yards. The CIA officer believes the schools are empty. Nevertheless the operations officers controlling the attack aircraft to be employed, fixed-wing strike aircraft and helicopters, fall into anxious debate about what weapons to employ. Should they be strike aircraft, delivering a 500-pound bomb, or attack helicopters, delivering an 18-pound Hellfire missile? The fire support officer states that ‘the smallest Air Force precision bomb has a five-hundred pound warhead, versus eighteen pounds of high explosive on a Hellfire. If we’re looking to minimize risks of destruction overflow, maybe that’s enough.’ The judge advocate counters that, ‘On the other hand, there’s a big political and psychological component to this strike, and if we’re trying to send a message, a bigger boom is better–so long as we’re comfortable we’re not gonna get unwanted collateral damage.’ While the debate continues, General Wallace, the commanding general of V Corps, appears at the conference to be briefed. While he listens, a forward air controller in one of the large overflying AWACS aircraft intervenes. He seems to be arguing for the use of a 2,000-lb satellite-guided bomb. Then he modifies the order, apparently as a result of discussion with Central Command. The decision now is for a Hellfire strike.

Half an hour after the conference began, the helicopter pilots report that three missiles have been fired. Their high-definition sensors report the results. The target building has been holed but is still standing and a truck with three occupants has made its escape. The conclusion is that the ‘bad guys’ may have got away. Zinsmeister, a close observer throughout the tactical conference, is impressed by the care taken not to do more damage than is necessary and to avoid causing civilian casualties. Next day, 2 April, he gets first-hand reports of contrary efforts made by the fedayeen to involve civilians. Some use an ambulance to mount an attack on an American post, others seize women and children off the street to protect a target about to be attacked by an American aircraft. In retrospect he reviews 325th Infantry Regiment’s work in Samawah during the week: ‘basic infantry blocking and tackling, but much of it is the more delicate and tricky work of urban warfare–clearing intersections and buildings, taking and holding bridges, draining sniper’s nests, smashing mortar and machine-gun sites hidden in residential neighbourhoods.’

The care taken to avoid causing hurt to innocents is not casual. Before the first assault to clear Samawah of fedayeen and Ba’athists, Zinsmeister witnesses 325’s ‘rock drill’, a tactical conference on the coming battle, so called because pieces of rock are used to mark key points on a tent floor, with parachute cord, stretched to show map grid lines that would show up on GPS indicators. Pieces of cardboard, bricks and piles of sand were added to the improvised map to stand for other features and locations. When the improvised model–familiar from classroom seminars in all officer and NCO training schools–was ready, the platoon and squad leaders clustered round, to be talked through the operation that would shortly unroll on the real terrain it represented.

During the rest of 3 April and the beginning of the night of 4 April the preparations for the final advance and capture of Samawah continue. Intelligence reports indicate that Karim Handany, a member of Saddam’s inner circle and a four-star uniformed general in the Republican Guard, had come down from Baghdad ‘to organize the local resistance. Street intersections had been built up with fighting positions. Machine-gun units were dug in and sandbagged in many locations. RPGs and ammunition were stashed in scores of buildings across the northern neighbourhoods’, which had not yet been taken. The troop leaders give their last orders:

Hot spots, check points and problem buildings are identified. Decisions are made on which squads should attack each. Snipers are assigned positions on high buildings. There is heavy emphasis on the rule of engagement, on fields of fire and physical operational limits, all of which are carefully calculated to avoid fratricide or collateral civilian damage.

At 0435 on the morning of 4 April the final assault on north Samawah begins.

The alleys are narrow, and dark windows and doors threaten from every direction. The squad clings to opposite sides of the street, scanning the rooftops and windows through gunsights as they make their way toward the river. A machine gunner is posted at each intersection. Gradually the troops clear out critical buildings. First the door is blown off with a shotgun, or the door is blasted open with C4 explosive. Then each room is swept at riflepoint. Most structures seem empty, but some have young men or families in them, who are gathered up for relocation to a safer quadrant farther back, and in some cases for questioning. Nearby, booms and machine gun bursts as adjoining squads encounter fire.

So, painstakingly, block by block, house by house, north Samawah is cleared. The infantrymen of 325th are alert to the appearance of ‘technicals’, a term learnt in Somalia, signifying a pickup truck carrying automatic weapons. There are other enemy mobile units, including taxis and civilian buses. By the afternoon of 4 April, however, Samawah has been emptied of hostile fighters, at a cost to the 82nd Airborne Division of one American soldier dead and twenty wounded. Zinsmeister is encouraged to hope that the rest of the campaign in Iraq, leading to the capture of Baghdad, can be concluded at equally low cost.

The operations of 82nd Division were replicated by those of its brother formation, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). On March 30, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters of the 101st, flying 250 sorties, airlifted two brigades of the division to positions from which Najaf and Hillah, on Highways 9 and 8, could be assaulted. The operation was sensitive, for Najaf was the site of the Golden Dome Mosque of Ali, tomb of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, a site of particular sensitivity to Shi’a Muslims. It was also protected by a mountainous escarpment which had been reinforced with fighting positions. The capture of both places was, nevertheless, essential, since they protected the routes up the Euphrates valley to the outskirts of Baghdad and had to be cleared if the rear area of 3rd Infantry Division were not to be attacked by pockets of fedayeen lurking in the two cities.

The 101st Airborne Division is, like the 82nd, one of the most famous fighting organizations in American military history. The 82nd, because of its nationwide recruitment during the Second World War, was known as the All-American; the 101st called itself the Screaming Eagles. With the 82nd it had jumped on D-Day, and its infantry regiments, the 327th, 501st, 502nd and 506th, had won a reverberating roll of battle honours. In the Vietnam era it had changed role, ceasing to parachute and acquiring helicopters to make it an air assault formation. Its airborne ethos remained unchanged; like those of the 82nd, its soldiers call the rest of the infantry ‘legs’ and cultivate an air of superiority.

The operation to secure Highways 8 and 9 began at Najaf, where Major General David Petraeus, 101st’s commanding general, deployed three battalions of his 1st Brigade, supported by a tank battalion, 1-70 Armour, to enter the city from the south. The northern approaches were covered by his 2nd Brigade. Though short of armour, Petraeus had plentiful air support, provided by his own divisional helicopters, Apaches and OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, reinforced by airforce and navy fixed wing strike aircraft. An early task was to destroy Ba’ath party headquarters, done with precision by the dropping of two JDAMs. The JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) is a conventional ‘dumb’ bomb, to which is attached a GPS guidance unit and fins, which allows it to achieve a very high degree of terminal accuracy at a fraction of the cost of that of a cruise missile. The battle for Najaf took the form of a block-by-block clearance of the streets, under a protective umbrella of helicopters which provided close fire support and direct observation, guiding the infantry to points of resistance. Outside the city the Apaches, with their heavy armament, destroyed over 200 enemy vehicles. By 1 April, two days after the operation had begun, Najaf was secure.

The focus then shifted north to Hillah, with several objects. One was to support the marine operation at the Tigris crossing. A second was to protect the development of 3rd Infantry Division’s attack on Baghdad from the direction of Karbala, farther north. Both missions would involve the 101st in combat with the Hammurabi Republican Guard Division, which had sent armour and infantry from the capital to defend its southern approaches. In one of the few episodes of organized resistance staged by the Iraqi conventional forces, 101st’s infantry and supporting armour would be forced to fight step by step, relying on artillery bombardment as well as tank gunnery and air support to reduce the defences as the strongpoints were identified. The Iraqis also deployed artillery, requiring the Americans to mount counter-battery fire, directed by radar that refers incoming fire to its point of origin. Fighting persisted in Hillah and its surrounding area from 2 to 10 April; only after eight days of often intense combat could General Petraeus report that Hillah was clear of enemy and secure. The battle, though not costly in American lives, had consumed an enormous amount of ordnance, including 1,000 Hellfire anti-armour missiles, launched from helicopters, 2,000 conventional artillery rounds, 155mm and 105mm, fired by 321st Artillery Regiment, and 114 ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile System), a rocket discharged from the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), with a longer range and heavier warhead than the MLRS standard missile. Army and air force aircraft had flown 135 close support missions, against bunkers and fortified buildings, while the division’s helicopters had destroyed 256 air-defence sites and vehicles, 110 guns and rocket launchers, 287 armoured vehicles, 800 other vehicles and many bunkers and other fire positions. Although the elements of the Hammurabi Division had fought better than most Iraqi troops encountered, they had lacked both the skills and the firepower to put up an effective defence.

The way to Baghdad was now open. The objectives yet to be taken–the Karbala gap, between that town and its reservoir fed from the Hadimah Dam, Baghdad International Airport, and the terminal points of the highways leading into the city–all lay within the metropolitan area. The rest of Saddam’s kingdom was in the possession of the coalition forces. In the Kurdish north, never fully under Saddam’s control, a coalition of Kurdish fighters, the peshmerga, coalition special forces and conventional American formations, notably the 173rd Airborne Brigade, had crushed the Ba’athist organization and was in control both of the countryside and the major cities. Part of the Sunni heartland, around Tikrit north of Baghdad, remained to be occupied but the behaviour of its population was not affecting the development of the campaign. In the Shi’a south the British element of the coalition force committed to Operation Iraqi Freedom had, after seizing the Fao peninsula and the port of Umm Qasr, entered and secured Basra. The liberation of Iraq from the monstrous dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was almost complete.

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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