Kuwait, March 22: US and British coalition forces are clearing the port town of Umm Qasr “street by street” of the Iraqi army that has turned “guerrilla”, a British officer said about three hours after leaving the scene of action.
The forces had also stopped their advance just west of the city of Basra, which has not been designated a military target.
In Washington yesterday, the Pentagon had said “Umm Qasr has been taken”.
The officer said the British 7th Armoured Division was now going to relieve the US formation engaged with the Iraqi 51 division. This would release the US sweep with the British securing the right flank of the Euphrates, giving the coalition forces a possible launch pad for an assault on Iraq’s Mesopotamian heartland.
The officer, Colonel Chris Vernon, a spokesman for the British army, said the coalition forces were also “not taking Basra, which is not a military target”. But there are reports of fighting on the outskirts of Basra, where US Marines have claimed headway.
It is possible that the forces will go into Basra if they “are welcomed in there”. Should the citizens of Basra ask the coalition forces to enter the city, it will be a pep-up in the propaganda war for the coalition. Basra has been known to be home to Shia rebels of southern Iraq who are far from being Saddam Hussein’s loyalists.
With journalists of networks “embedded” with coalition forces, an entry into Basra with the local people displaying welcome signs can be a publicity coup.
Colonel Vernon said military and humanitarian aid, such as water, food, medical supplies and medical expertise — at first from the military itself, followed by non-government organisations — could reach Basra in 72 hours.
The coalition forces’ advance to Umm Qasr was launched on the night of the 19th. Umm Qasr is the closest major urban settlement when approached from the north of Kuwait. The port town in southern Iraq is short of the bigger city of Basra. East of Umm Qasr, in the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is the Al Faw Peninsula, which has been taken by British Royal Commandos.
But it is the battle for Umm Qasr that can mark the first of a series of tactics that Iraqi defences may have adopted against coalition forces. “They’re using guerrilla tactics. It’s not a coherent, dug-in force,” Colonel Vernon said.
He said the 51 Iraqi Army Division that was the Basra garrison had largely “disintegrated” and at least one brigade commander of the division had surrendered.
The colonel would not speculate on the number of surrenders by Iraqi troops of the 51 division and said the brigade commander had surrendered by himself. “Umm Qasr is very easy to defend as a town and a population centre,” the colonel said, meaning the Iraqi army’s remnants were doing the expected in desperation.
“The Iraqi army’s first major formation — the 51 division — has been rendered ‘combat ineffective’. There is an element of surrender, there is an element of disintegration.” But it was difficult to distinguish between soldiers and civilians.
Asked how long it might take to “secure” Umm Qasr, the colonel said: “There’s serious chaos out there. It’s not a traffic congestion in London. We do not act by timelines, but I was told ‘by close of play today’.”
The advance to Umm Qasr was launched by the US 13 Marine Expeditionary Unit (Marines) and the British 7th Armoured Division about nine hours after the move to take the Al Faw Peninsula by the British Royal Commandos.
The officer said remnants of the Iraqi army in Umm Qasr “were in and out of military and civilian clothes and engaging coalition forces in pockets of resistance with mostly small arms and rocket propelled grenades (RPG-7s)”.
Describing the scene in Umm Qasr, Colonel Vernon said: “It is an unusual city of some 4,000 people. It really is decrepit. For a country (Iraq) rich in oil, Umm Qasr deserved better.”
The objective given to the forces — the Marines and the armoured division with a unit called the Desert Rats — was twofold. First, there was the worry that the Iraqi authorities will use Umm Qasr and the Al Faw Peninsula to flood the Persian Gulf with oil, causing environmental damage. “Iraqi oil is for the posterity of the Iraqi people,” Vernon said.
Second, the forces were tasked to secure the Gas and Oil Separation Plant that, if damaged, can take eight months to a year to repair.
Umm Qasr is above the Rumallah oil field in southern Iraq and is one of the two oil-rich zones of the country. The other is in the north — in the Mosul-Kirkuk region. Six gas and oil separation plants s run north to south on the Rumallah.
British forces were now consolidating the hold on southern Iraq while a US military thrust has continued northwards towards An Nasiriyah, bypassing Basra. “If we are welcomed into Basra, that increases the pressure for regime change,” said Vernon.
Asked if the pace of operations was “satisfactory”, the officer said: “It could go flip-flip-flip for two or three days. It’s going very well.”