Kuwait, March 27: As the war on Iraq entered its second week, coalition forces marked out two priorities. First, securing the rear area to ensure that supply lines are intact and keep flowing in southern Iraq. Second, open a northern front, which has happened with a huge parachute drop of forces through last night.
The paratroopers took over an airfield in Kurdish-controlled territory. “This is the beginning of the northern front,” a US defence official said.
However, it is unlikely that forces parachuting in can be large enough to open a fully credible northern front. The coalition forces could simply try to reinforce the position of the Kurds, who are opposed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and are in control of the territory in the north, just as in Afghanistan the Northern Alliance helped make the push to Kabul.
In the same area, Kurdish fighters crossed into Iraqi government-controlled territory in the first such advance since the war began.
US forces in central Iraq were bracing for the biggest battle on the road to Baghdad near Karbala with elements of Saddam’s Republican Guards. Karbala is 110 km south of Baghdad.
Coalition sources described it as a key battle because of its importance in the final push to Baghdad. Whenever that happens, the supply line for the forces running from Kuwait — a distance of 300 km and more — will have to be working smoothly.
There was recognition at the very top in Washington that not everything was going well in the war. President George W. Bush cut out the words “ahead of schedule” from a speech he was to make at an air force base and replaced them with “good progress”.
Later, after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush said: “Saddam Hussein will be removed no matter how long it takes.”
The coalition thrust towards Baghdad has three spearheads. The first is racing west from An Nasiriyah. The second has travelled through the desert mostly on the right bank of the Euphrates and is in the region of Karbala. It has engaged Iraqi troops in Nasiriyah and An Najaf on the way and much of these engagements still continue. This thrust continues on both banks of the Euphrates. The third is by and large taking the Tigris route.
These spearheads of the coalition thrusts have to be fed continuously with fuel, ammunition, spares and relief. The “snakes” of the spearheads are definitely targets of the Iraqi army, which has withdrawn even with armoured units into cities on the Euphrates but are following a strategy of “active resistance”, trying to make sudden attacks on the supply line.
On the Tigris thrust, fighting has been reported from two cities, one of which is Al Kut, the site of the defeat of the British army 80 years ago. Both cities have Iraqi Republican Guards divisions.
The “snake” of supply lines is being secured to sustain not only the spearheads but also an infantry division that is being redeployed from its intended staging ground in Turkey for a north-to-central thrust to Kuwait.
As the weather improved in Iraq after two days of blinding sandstorms, US troops consolidated their supply lines.
Baghdad was bombed again this afternoon and evening after dozens of blasts overnight.
In the south, British forces said they had destroyed 14 Iraqi tanks and four troop carriers making the latest of several attempts to break out of Basra.
US-led forces smashed an Iraqi armoured column that tried to move south from Basra overnight.