Outside Ali Al Salem Air Base (Kuwait), March 25: The peals of thunder breaking through the cloud cover on Kuwait today are the clearest indication that the bombardment in Iraq through the day is among the heaviest since the war started.
Most of the time the jet fighters that fly over the clouds are not visible but the roar and swish in their aftermath are a giveaway that more than the usual number of sorties are being flown in daytime. The coalition said 1,400 sorties were expected today.
A crucial military failure of the Iraqi forces to stop the land advance from crossing the Euphrates at An Nasiriyah by the 7th Cavalry, the vanguard of the 3rd Mechanised Infantry Division, could mean that a pincer movement on Baghdad is closing in.
| British ‘Desert Rats’ Royal Fusiliers, Zulu Company, pose with a portrait of Saddam Hussein taken from a Baath Party building in Basra on Monday. (AP)
CNN’s Walter Rodgers, who is “embedded” with the 3rd Squadron of the 7th Cavalry, reported that the bridge over the Euphrates was crossed minutes before Iraqi forces tried to blow it up. This can turn out to be one of the biggest failures of the Iraqi forces in the war. Coalition forces also declared today that Umm Qasr has finally fallen and Iraq’s only deep-sea port will be opened for vessels carrying aid within hours.
A blinding sandstorm in the Iraqi desert is holding up the march of the 3rd Mechanised Infantry Division on the right bank of the Euphrates but not all the aircraft that fly out of the two bases in Kuwait — Ahmed Al Jaber and Ali Al Salem — are so weather-dependent that they will be rendered inoperable. The Al Salem base is about 65 km from the Iraq border.
Coalition land forces are claimed to be less than that distance from Baghdad. One reason the Al Salem base is so busy even in daytime is because it is home to British units of the A-10 Thunderbolt close-support aircraft. The Thunderbolts operate in conjunction with land forces, busting enemy tanks and gun positions to reinforce the advance of the assaulting troops.
The fights against armour — tanks and mechanised forces — are the surest indication that the coalition forces have come up against some of the strongest Iraqi forces. The battles for Baghdad and Basra are about to be waged. Whether they will be waged at the same time is difficult to say. Indications are they could be simultaneous.
Primary target Baghdad has rings of security around it. In the region of the Islamic holy place of Karbala or Karbala-Gap, south southwest of the Iraqi capital, coalition land forces will be looking to take on the Republican Guard division that was specifically identified by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the Medina Division when he warned the House of Commons yesterday that bitter battles are to follow.
The Battle for Baghdad could spring a surprise. Scenarios range from a pincer movement to attack the city from the south southwest and an attack by US Marines from Baghdad’s northeast in conjunction with air assault to a capitulation, a surrender by the Republican Guards. For the moment, it looks like a sandstorm and also the need to consolidate positions might mean a wait for 48 hours.
In the south of Iraq, the coalition command today said, Basra has been designated a “military target”, three days after announcing that the capture of the city by force was not necessary. The coalition command half-expected, too, that there will indeed be some kind of a welcome from Basra, home in the past to Shia rebels against Saddam Hussein.
In the Battle for Baghdad, the coalition forces will be up against the Medina Division in the outer circle.
If the coalition forces breach through the Medina Division, they will come up against the Special Republican Guards, estimated to be 15,000-strong and made of fiercely-loyal soldiers from Saddam’s hometown, Tirkit.
The Iraqi forces have been successful in their strategy to draw in coalition forces into a street-by-street battle in Basra.
Baghdad had assigned the defence of Basra to the 51 Division. Large elements of the division have withdrawn into the city. British forces are now trying to encircle it.