London, April 10: The soldiers who took part in the battle for Baghdad did not believe it would be over so quickly. “We thought they were kidding when the battalion commander said we’re going to drive tanks into the middle of Baghdad,” said Capt Jason Conroy, an army officer who took part.
Operations were planned “on the hoof” when it became clear that Baghdad was theirs for the taking. Plans to besiege the city were torn up.
When last Wednesday the 18,000-strong 3rd Infantry Division steam-rollered through the Medina division of the Republican Guard in the Karbala gap, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the US Central Command, knew the road to the Iraqi capital lay wide open.
“The US advance on Baghdad is something that military historians and academics will pore over in great detail for many years to come,” said Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the British commander.
“They will examine the dexterity, the audacity and the sheer brilliance of how the US put their plan into effect.”
The two arms of a giant armoured pincer closed on the capital. The 1st US Marine Division, under Maj. Gen. James Mattis, in the east, shattered the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard, seizing the bridge over the Tigris west of Kut. In the west, the 3rd Division had reached the edge of the city.
The audacious capture of Saddam International Airport on Friday gave the lie to Iraqi boasts and revealed the truth of the Special Republican Guard. They were no more special than the rest of the Iraqi regime.
With the airport in his hands, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the division’s 49-year-old commanding general, was keen to exert maximum pressure on the regime. He knew it was on the edge. The reports from special forces operating deep inside the capital and the pictures from the Global Hawk UAVs flying overhead painted a very different picture as they reached Gen. Blount’s HQ from what the armchair generals in London and Washington were predicting. It was not a city prepared to mount a stiff resistance by a well-armed, well co-ordinated elite force, but an urban sprawl defended by pockets of unco-ordinated militia.
Momentum is the essence of military success. The moment was his. He took a huge gamble that would tip the battle or see his forces repulsed in a humiliating defeat. He ordered a huge armoured thrust into the heart of the crumbling regime. This was to be no cautious, street-by-street, nibbling away at the capital. It was an almighty sledgehammer blow.
In an instant, Gen. Blount rendered obsolete decades of military wisdom on how to take a city. Conventional military doctrine has it that the tank is vulnerable in cities, that you need thousands of soldiers, that urban fighting favours the defenders, that it takes time and results in hundreds of casualties. Gen. Blount proved how wrong that was.
Fighting through at times fierce pockets of resistance, he parked his tanks on Saddam’s lawn. There they stayed, defying the Republican Guard to attack them. By Monday, a large area of the capital on the west bank of the Tigris was beyond the dictator’s control.
It is understood that the Americans watched the British operation in Basra with frustration, believing that if it had been more aggressive, the city would have fallen earlier. But British sources yesterday defended their more tentative approach, saying it was done to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.
Although no figures are available yet, it is believed that the number of civilian deaths in Baghdad will be far higher.
All the time, from the north and the east, the US tightened the stranglehold on the city. The Marines met stiff resistance. But under the deluge of fire this collapsed and the Marines stormed through.
Then yesterday it was suddenly all over. Journalists in the Hotel Palestine awoke to find their minders had fled. Tanks and armoured vehicles arrived outside, to be greeted by Iraqis smashing statues of the despised leader. The city had fallen.