Much rides on battle in Iraq's Euphrates Valley
|||Hawai'i riveted by nonstop war coverage|
|||American troops battle elite Iraqi guard soldiers|
|||Apaches come under heavy fire|
|||Graphic (opens in new window): Iraqi resistance slows coalition advance|
By Thomas E. Ricks
The battle now beginning between U.S. forces and the Republican Guard's Medina Division to the southwest of Baghdad promises to be a decisive engagement that signals whether the new Gulf War will be over in a week or two or drags on for a month or more.
Oil fires ringed the city of Baghdad yesterday as a defense against incoming U.S. missiles and bombs. U.S. forces and Iraq's elite Medina Division are facing off in a battle just south of the capital city.
"This engagement will determine if this is a long or short war," predicted an Army officer at the Pentagon.
The impending battle confronts U.S. forces with a dilemma that goes to the heart of the complex mission in which they are engaged: They can maximize the advantages of their overwhelming firepower and bomb a wily adversary hiding heavy weapons in built-up areas, which would inflict civilian casualties and set back the U.S. campaign for public opinion. Or they can try to attack precisely with low-flying helicopters and ground forces, which could mean losing more U.S. troops.
If the fight against the Medina Division ends in just a day or two, or if parts of the unit surrender without a fight, that will send a powerful signal that the climactic battle for Baghdad won't be as difficult as some have predicted, or won't occur at all.
But if the 10,000-man Medina Division manages to undercut American momentum, and especially if it inflicts heavy casualties in the process, or it just retreats from a battlefield strewn with dead civilians, then the tone of the war likely will change. A bitter fight that takes a week might even persuade the U.S. military to alter its strategy and dig in to wait for reinforcements to arrive from the Army's tank-heavy 4th Infantry Division which would likely take at least two or three weeks.
In the first engagement between the U.S. Army and the Medina Division, before dawn yesterday, about 35 Apache attack helicopters flew over part of the division, which is spread out in wooded and built-up areas east of the town of Karbala, about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.
Officials portrayed the foray as "reconnaissance by fire" and declared it a success. At a briefing in Qatar, Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said the helicopters "were very effective in their mission." But returning pilots sounded less certain, saying they hit a handful of tanks and armored vehicles, but were forced to cut short their effort because of heavy ground fire. They also said that their rules of engagement prevented them from firing on some targets. One helicopter was downed either by fire or a mechanical failure, and its two-person crew was declared missing.
Secretary of State Colin Powell sounded optimistic yesterday as he described in an interview with Fox News how the U.S. offensive would defeat the Medina Division. "After the ground forces have fixed them, air power goes after them, and then the ground forces go in and finish them off," he said.
That's the Army's preferred mode of combat, used to devastating effect in the first Persian Gulf War. This time, however, the engagement will take place in vastly different terrain from the open desert where that war was fought, and could involve the weapons greatly feared then, but never used.
"There are intelligence reports that Iraq has distributed chemical weapons, most likely VX (nerve gas) to the Republican Guard," including the Medina Division, said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst of Middle Eastern militaries. When reconnaissance images showed munitions being delivered, he said, they were accompanied by chemical decontamination trucks.
Retired Rear Adm. John Sigler, a former chief planner for the U.S. Central Command, agreed with that assessment, saying, "I don't think you'll see bugs (biological weapons), but you might see gas."
Indications are that Iraqis now are applying hard lessons learned during the Gulf War and then, by the Yugoslav military, during the 1999 Kosovo air campaign. The tanks and heavy weapons of Medina Division aren't arrayed for battle, in tight formations that would make them easy targets, but instead are dispersed under trees and in the farming villages of the Euphrates River valley, Defense officials said.
That setup makes them difficult to hit with punishing B-52 carpet bombings. Instead, Air Force A-10s and F-16s and Navy F/A-18s are flying smaller, "tank-plinking" strikes, which are riskier for pilots. While those smaller, retail-style raids do destroy some armored vehicles, they don't have the effect that heavy bombers do of disrupting other essentials of military operations, such as resupply and communications.