| US lieutenant Matt Fennell mans a tank as his battalion heads towards Baghdad. (AP/PTI)
Kuwait, April 2: Shaking off four days of war weariness, coalition forces led by American troops have overnight moved to take Baghdad by the rivers of Babylon.
The retarded second prong of the forces along the Tigris has taken shape with US Marines crossing over farmlands, skirmishing through the garrison at Al Kut to cross the river that, a little to the north, flows through the Iraqi capital.
The move comes two days after US Central Command chief General Tommy Franks visited the coalition land forces’ command in Kuwait. General Franks may have also made a sortie into central Iraq where the US fifth corps has moved its forward tactical headquarters but this could not be immediately confirmed.
Late tonight, the vanguard of the main body of the advance, the 3rd Mechanised Infantry Division that was rolling through the east bank of the Euphrates, was possibly 30 km from the south-western outskirts of Baghdad with major elements of it having skirted the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
The advance in the last 12 hours stretches the US troops’ supply line tighter. If the “dagger” of the 3rd Mechanised does not (or cannot) plunge straight into Baghdad, a period of further digging-in is likely, as in Basra, in southern Iraq, where the Iraqi defences have not been breached by the British in two weeks. In that event, a period of war from trenches across the Tigris is a plausible scenario.
Today’s move has been made possible by at least one, possibly two, breaches in the defences manned by the Republican Guard divisions, Medina and Nebuchadnezzar, and by what looks like a defeat of the Baghdad Division near Al Kut.
It cannot yet be said that the US forces are hours away from entering Baghdad. Questions to the coalition land forces command in Kuwait are inevitably met with the response “we do not speak on ongoing or future operations”. Asked about options, a senior officer had replied in the past: “Scenarios range from the hostile to benign.” “Hostile” indicates a tough battle, possibly using tanks and mechanised forces, and “benign” means capitulation or surrender by the Iraqi Republican Guard.
The pattern of the war so far has been such that the coalition has made ground fast in the open and has come across defences in and around towns that have slowed its pace, forcing it to either bypass or battle through. The coalition strategy has been to bypass unless it was necessary to battle through, such as in An Nasiriyah and, now, in Al Kut. The Al Kut crossing was vital to the pincer move.
The swift pincer move since last night suggests four features. First, the battle for Baghdad may begin even without fresh American troops and equipment.
Second, the spearhead of the US forces is in a zone where it will be on hair-trigger alert on the possible use of chemical weapons. Third, whatever weapons of mass destruction the Iraqi forces might possess will be increasingly difficult to use because of the proximity of the battleground to the city of 5 million.
Fourth, the coalition forces are eager to take Baghdad without even credible evidence that a significant section of Iraqis are willing to join hands with them in the war against Saddam Hussein. This is a marked departure from the tactic in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, where a mid-course correction saw the US land forces advancing to Kabul with Northern Alliance troops at the helm.
Despite the dramatic advance, the possibility of an immediate charge into Baghdad is low. The likely strategy will be to isolate Baghdad. The “isolation” of Baghdad militarily will mean that the coalition forces can seek to close in on the city in a wide arc with heavy air and small land attacks from the north.
Inside Baghdad, the Special Republican Guard, variously estimated to total 15,000 to 22,000, will be preparing for a street-by-street battle. The Fidayeen Saddam, following the pattern of the war so far, will seek to attack in the rear of the US forces.
An inside-out approach — that will involve infiltrating or air-dropping troops inside the city to link up with the advances from the south — depends heavily on what the secretive missions carried out by the US special forces have achieved so far.