Baghdad, April 8: The idea to seize two of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces was hatched in a command field tent.
Unlike most battle plans in the war on Iraq, this one was not devised by the high command. Col. David Perkins and his staff at the 2nd Brigade of the army’s 3rd Infantry Division created the plan on Sunday morning during bull sessions in the shadow of a highway overpass. It was risky.
Tanks and armour would be asked to sprint past thousands of Special Republican Guard troops straight into downtown Baghdad, seize the palaces, the information ministry and several key intersections, and hold them. “The concept was to go in like a pit bull and get your jaws locked around a target, and then just don’t ever let go,” said the brigade’s executive officer, 41-year-old Lt. Col. Eric Wesley.
The boldness fit with the rapid, high firepower American tactics of the last two weeks. If the plan worked, there could be no doubt about the ability of American armour to do whatever it wanted in Baghdad.
Perkins passed the idea up the chain of command. He got back the approval he wanted. By late Sunday afternoon, Perkins was briefing his staff in a fly-infested room inside an abandoned Iraqi military post on the city’s southern outskirts. “This is the last big battle tomorrow, gentlemen,” Perkins said.
“They said it would take five divisions to win this war. But there’s no question that we can really do it ourselves tomorrow. We’ve got to seal the deal NOW.”
Maj. Joffery Watson, 36, a slight, studious intelligence officer, showed the staff “amber” and “red zones” on a satellite map. Amber zones were areas already secured. Red zones included broad swathes of central Baghdad, where the city’s wealthy elite and Baath Party officials were protected by Special Republican Guard troops.
The Iraqi unit was down to about 10,000 men, from 30,000 to 60,000 before the war, but planners had to assume that as Saddam’s elite vanguard, the loyalists would fight to the death. Their armour was largely destroyed, but they still had recoilless rifles, artillery, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombers.
All told, the American force would total of about 100 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and armoured personnel carriers as well as 1,000 combat soldiers.
A key to the plan was neutralising regular troops and militiamen who had taken positions on highway overpasses. When a 3rd Infantry armoured column rampaged through Baghdad on Saturday, the Iraqis rained grenades, damaging every one of the 29 tanks and 14 Bradley fighting vehicles.
The overpass mission fell to Lt. Col. Kenneth Gantt. The plan called for Gantt’s two batteries of six 155-mm artillery pieces to hit eight overpasses with “air burst” shells that explode in the air, killing soldiers but sparing infrastructure. “Basically,” Gantt said Sunday evening, “we’re going to force all those guys to keep their heads down till our guys get past.”
Another important element was close air support by F-15Es, F-18s and A-10 Warthog tank-killers. The American force would split up inside the city, with separate columns fighting their way to separate targets.
Special Forces units would also be along, riding in white Toyota pickups dangerously similar to white pickups topped with heavy machine guns used by Iraqi paramilitaries. The difference, he pointed out, was that the Special Forces vehicles would be distinguished by bright orange panels. Perkins was worried about friendly fire. Nodding to the Special Forces soldiers in the back of the room — three sunburned men with facial hair and baseball caps — he told his staff: “Their vehicle is right outside. Go take a good look at it.”
“This is (the) last pocket of organised resistance,” Perkins said. “We get all that out of there, it’s all political manoeuvering from here on out.” He paused and stared at the floor. “Tomorrow is our last big fight,” he said. “It’s the base on which the future of this country is built.”
Ten hours later, Perkins stood calmly on a ramp leading to Saddam Hussein’s new palace. Col. Gantt sat relaxing in a chair at the palace, a pleased man. His artillery had arrived right on schedule.