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America’s turn to take the hit

Kuwait, March 23: The American War of Iraqi Independence has reached Mesopotamian marshlands with the thrust by the US’ 3rd Mechanised Division along the Euphrates cracking through An Nasiriyah 260 km short of Baghdad but another intended thrust along the Tigris retarded if not bogged down.

Hours into the war on the first day, a Pentagon official was quoted as saying it would take the coalition forces three or four days to Baghdad. Today is day four, and on paper the worst for the coalition forces.

Iraqi television today showed film of at least four bodies, said to be of US soldiers, and five prisoners who said they were American. Two of the prisoners, including a woman, appeared to be wounded. One was lying on the floor on a rug. They were the first US prisoners known to have been taken by Iraq.

The television parade capped a day of grim news. An American soldier lobbed a grenade into a tent of his mates, killing one. Later, a US missile downed a British Tornado.

The sudden slowdown in the coalition land forces’ advance is in stark contrast to the rapid ground made in the first 72 hours. As of now, the evidence of ground held and gained suggests that the coalition could encounter the defences of Baghdad from the south on Monday or Tuesday.

In what is bad warring and worse publicity, there is clear evidence that the coalition forces are advancing without overwhelming. Pockets of resistance escape through the wash of military might that has rolled into southern Iraq from north Kuwait.

The battle for the port city of Umm Qasr continued today with an Iraqi army that was said to have disintegrated into a militia. The coalition forces are in control of the port and much of the settlement without being able to “secure” them. Umm Qasr is Iraq’s only deep sea port. Coalition forces want it to deliver military equipment and aid.

The first vessel to carry humanitarian aid was to be from the Kuwaiti government in a show that Kuwait shares its concerns for the people of Iraq even if it has no sympathy for Iraq’s regime. The ship was to leave Kuwait at 2.30 this afternoon. Half-an-hour before its departure, the trip was called off.

If Umm Qasr is on the verge of being secured, it is because the coalition forces have had to resort to helicopter strikes. The coalition command’s strategy is to use air strikes in population centres only as a last resort.

Farther west of Umm Qasr, the coalition forces have been at the gates of Basra since last afternoon where they encountered the Iraqi 51 division.

In the rearguard of the allied military machine, in north Kuwait, which is the staging ground for the assault, an American soldier with the crack US 101 Airborne Division now awaiting assault orders in the desert at “Camp Pennsylvania” rolled three hand grenades into one of the tents covered with brown desert camouflage. The explosion, at least one soldier was killed and 13 injured.

Not far away, a US air defence battery launched Patriot ant-missile missiles that “locked-into” a British Royal Air Force Tornado Jet returning from a mission in Iraq. Radar identifies blips on the screen and a blip on the screen will not necessarily distinguish friend from foe.

Coalition forces also have to now contend with the failure to open up a credible front to the north of Baghdad even as the thrusts from the south were begun. In the Kirkuk-Mosul highlands of oil-rich northern Iraq – “Kurdistan” – Turkish commandos have instead made an incursion that threatens – but will not necessarily – render the fog of war in the region opaque.

If a northern front cannot be opened in Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s forces can reinforce defences to the south of Baghdad. The US can hope that with the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan securing a confidence vote in Ankara, he will be the harbinger of good news for Washington and London.

What next'

The brakes on the allied advance – if indeed that is what it is – have come early enough in the war for the coalition forces to make readjustments. Indications are the 4th Mechanised Division that would have otherwise pressed into service from the Turkish border in northern Iraq can be redeployed through the south, from Kuwait, and possibly be supported by special forces operations from the west out of Jordan.

This is what the scene in northern Kuwait was as the invasion of Iraq began. Massed in north Kuwait, the major coalition forces comprised the 3rd Mechanised Division which is one of the largest US army formations in terms of firepower, the first Marine Division that counted among its units the 15 Marine Expeditionary unit that headed for Umm Qasr, the 101 Airborne Division, that is still awaiting orders to move, the British 1 Armoured Division and the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division.

The 3rd Mechanised Division with the 7th Cavalry as its vanguard raced through the Samiya Desert encountering almost no resistance and it has either bypassed An Nasiriyah or as cut through a portion of hit, crossed the bridge on the Euphrates and was by this afternoon 60 km short of An Najaf with the likelihood of reaching the city by evening. (The ‘Euphrates thrust’)

A second advance that too went through breaches made in the berms (a wall of desert sand and stone) on the Iraq-Kuwait corridor was possibly intended to go up to Basra and take the route along the Tigris has not yet happened. (The ‘Tigris thrust’).

One reason for this slowing down is a pocket of resistance at or near Umm Qasr that can overlook a road through which convoys and squadrons of tanks may pass.

To overcome this, the US can use the 4th Mechanised Division. The US 4th Mechanised Division, called the “Ironside Division”, possibly has more armour than the 3rd Division. The 4th Mechanised can then team up with the 3rd to ring around Baghdad.

For that however, it is crucial to take the land between the two rivers “Mesopotamia”. Down in the south of Iraq, it is a swampy vastness unsuitable for large scale infantry movement that can fan across easily. It is inevitable that a route along the Tigris will have to be opened up unless the northern front comes alive and does not deteriorate into a civil war-type scenario.

In Mesopotamia, from the dawn of civilisation, settlements have taken birth and grown along the banks of rivers. The Iraqi security forces will use history and geography for a strategy of “strongpoint defences” against mobile attacks.

There is one great rider to this: it assumes the Iraqi command and control structure is still working if not wholly intact. Should the command at the apex in Baghdad fail, the conventional Iraqi forces will capitulate, the defenders of Baghdad – the Iraqi army, the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard -- will be reduced to fighting for their own survival.

This is war. Aces are not revealed but up there in the Kuwaiti Desert, there is the 101 Airborne Division, coiled up to spring into action.

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