Capital's fall vindicates war plan
By Dave Moniz and John Diamond
As Army battle tanks from the 3rd Infantry Division were making the first main thrust into Baghdad last weekend, U.S. soldiers captured a senior Republican Guard commander who blundered into their advancing column.
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The Iraqi colonel's complete surprise at encountering the armored force gave U.S. commanders an important clue about the state of Saddam Hussein's Baghdad defenses: They were fatally disorganized. Even senior Iraqi commanders, who should have had up-to-the-minute intelligence on U.S. forces, were unaware that the Americans had reached the city and were now entering in force.
During the next two days, the U.S. commanders found further evidence that Baghdad might not be the killing ground they imagined. Convinced the Iraqis would fold if pushed hard, commanders made a fateful decision to scrap the plan to cautiously probe the city and launched a bold attack that led to U.S. troops seizing control of the central city yesterday.
The swift fall of the Iraqi capital, observers say, can be traced to a few turning points in the past five days and to a war plan that now appears largely vindicated.
Defense analysts say the events highlight a huge U.S. advantage on the battlefield: flexibility.
"The U.S. military is great at seeing opportunities and seizing them," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer and author of numerous books on modern warfare.
"When we captured that colonel, it was evident we could punch right through Saddam's defenses. Now, the regime is broken, we are over the hump."
In analyzing the sudden fall of Baghdad, senior military officers and defense analysts point to several critical events:
- The targeting of Saddam and his sons in a downtown Baghdad neighborhood Monday demonstrated crucial U.S. advantages in intelligence and speed. Tipped that Saddam was in a Baghdad residence or a bunker beneath it, commanders put a B-1B bomber and four 2,000 bombs on the target in about 45 minutes. Whether the strike killed Saddam is uncertain. What U.S. intelligence does know is that virtually no one in his regime information ministry officials, Special Security forces, Baath Party officials, intelligence officials showed up for work in Baghdad yesterday.
- Also on Monday, Army soldiers seized Saddam's Republican Palace and Republican Guard barracks, powerfully symbolic acts that demonstrated that U.S. ground forces could strike virtually any target in the city.
- On Tuesday, the Marines moved thousands of troops across the Diyala River and parked them in eastern Baghdad, crushing any illusions created by Iraqi government claims that U.S. forces were being routed or turned back.
- On the same day, Marines took control of the Rashid Air Base, which showed that Army and Marine forces were completing a pincer movement toward the center of the city. With the United States in control of the main roads and the capital's two main airports, coalition forces had effectively sealed off Baghdad.
All this happened too quickly for the Iraqis to react effectively.
"The overwhelming tempo of our operations was something they just couldn't keep up with," a senior military official said.
There's an old saying in military circles about building a war plan: The enemy has a vote.
Since the 3rd Infantry Division launched the first major assault on Baghdad five days ago, most of Saddam's most loyal troops either abstained or voted with their feet.
Saddam's battle plan called for his regular army as the first line of defense, his Republican Guard, arrayed in a 50-mile arc around Baghdad, as the second, and the Special Republican Guard and Baath Party irregular forces as the tough, inner core. By the time U.S. forces entered the city Saturday, Iraq's regular Army had failed to fight, the Republican Guard had been badly weakened by 24-hour-a-day air and ground attacks, and Saddam's Special Republican Guard had lost the coordination necessary to fight a heavily armored attacking force.
By Monday afternoon, just after the B-1B bomber struck Saddam's suspected meeting place, the Iraqi regime had little heavy combat punch remaining. Pentagon officials estimated that the Republican Guard had lost or abandoned 831 of its 850 tanks.
Military experts are divided over whether Saddam's defensive scheme was flawed or whether the Pentagon's war plan simply overwhelmed the Iraqi defenders.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Saddam's plan counted too heavily on citizens in Baghdad to take up arms and failed to anticipate the speed of U.S. forces.
Peters, the military author, argued that the skill of the U.S. military, not flaws in Saddam's plan, was the key to the rapid collapse of his regime. "Saddam had a classic layered defense plan leading to the gates of Baghdad, but the U.S. military hit so hard, so fast, that it blew through all levels of resistance so quickly that his plan never had a chance to work," he said.
Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was criticized early in the war for having invaded Iraq with too few tanks and ground troops, developments this week may have validated his plan.
Instead of methodically working their way through southern and central Iraq, a large Marine Corps ground force and the Army's 3rd Infantry Division raced to Baghdad to put immediate pressure on Saddam's seat of power. While U.S. supply lines were vulnerable to guerrilla attacks the first two weeks of the war, the blitz north, combined with around-the-clock bombing, quickly destroyed the three Republican Guard divisions defending Baghdad.
The plan was executed with only two tank divisions, without the help of a third tank division planners had hoped to send in from Turkey until the Turkish parliament denied U.S. basing rights.
The aim of the much-discussed invasion plan has now become clearer. The strategy was to move heavy forces quickly to Baghdad to destroy the Republican Guard while using lighter special operations and airborne forces to secure cities and supply lines in the rear. The idea, one senior official said, was to avoid combat on the way to Baghdad but to seek out Saddam's forces once there.
Once near Baghdad, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division switched from a mobile force to a killing force. With support from Air Force, Marine and Navy bombers, ground troops formed armored columns and moved forward to draw enemy fire. In less than a week, with the help of more than 4,000 smart bombs, the Army and Marines had destroyed or crippled the Republican Guard's Medina, Hammurabi and Baghdad divisions, clearing the path to Baghdad.
Once in Baghdad, American troops were seldom seriously threatened. Iraqi attacks typically consisted of irregular forces charging at U.S. tanks in pickup trucks or guerrillas firing rocket-propelled grenades that bounced off Abrams tanks.
The U.S. technological advantage gave Army and Marine forces a way to quickly locate the positions of Iraqis who fired their weapons, allowing them to be destroyed by U.S. ground or air fire.
"It was like a death sentence for the Iraqis," said one senior officer who did not want to be identified. "We tracked all their" weapons fire.