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Home > News > Columnists > Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Full marks to Tommy Franks

April 10, 2003

The battle of Baghdad is over. Only disorganised resistance remains. This will be overcome through mopping up operations and pacification of the Iraqis on a looting spree, both in Baghdad and Basra.

Operation Iraqi Freedom despite the occasional hiccups has cut through Iraq with commendable precision. Baghdad will fall without the kind of fight that was envisaged. Compare this with the fight put up by the Iraqis at their second city Basra, and you begin to wonder what happened to Saddam's famous Republican Guards.

Part of it perished in the monumental bombing and part simply melted away, one had thought, to fight another day. That has not happened. So all those who said the war would go on till next year, certainly another six months, and were recalling shades of Vietnam, will have to eat their words.

Given the enormity of the capability mismatch, two cheers for Saddam for holding out for three weeks. The hunt is on for getting Saddam dead or alive. The resistance in Baghdad was not the kind of street fighting and urban guerrilla warfare that had been anticipated. Small groups of irregulars and militia armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were roaming the streets and deployed in parts of the city. They are unlikely to be able to do what the defiant information minister had been promising, the fight to finish the coalition forces.

The coalition command had taken abundant precaution to say that these were not the main attacks on Baghdad but simply a show of force. The question that will be debated in the days ahead is: what happened to the elite Republican Guards who had established 'two rings of steel' around Baghdad and also marked a red line around it in which they were to employ unconventional weapons.

There was no preparation by the Republican Guard for the battle of Baghdad -- no defences, no defence fortifications, no mines, bridges were not prepared for demolition, nothing at all to suggest they were going to fight a battle. It turns out that after serious misgivings about the progress and conduct of operations by US 5 Corps whose lead elements had been halted due to stiff resistance south and south west of Baghdad, and were regarded as stalled, they suddenly resumed the advance and made a dash for Baghdad encountering very little organised resistance.

Once they had captured the Baghdad International Airport, they sensed Baghdad was within their grasp. In the normal course of events 3 Infantry Division which had been on the move for more than two weeks would not have been asked to approach and invest Baghdad, but merely contain it. They were the advance elements of 5 Corps to have reached Baghdad after a 500-km advance. It was expected that they would merely encircle Baghdad from the south and the south west and leave the south and south east for the US Marines who came along the Tigris but were delayed by 48 hours.

It was 4 Infantry Division which would have rolled in behind 3 Infantry Division for the battle of Baghdad and this could have taken another two weeks at the very least. But thanks to the commander on the spot who sensed an opportunity and advised taking the risk of using the same, by now, tired troops who had started the advance from Kuwait nearly three weeks ago. It was the commander's sense of judgement and timing that made possible the reconnaissance by a few tanks and infantry into the heart of the capital city.

This was followed by missions which were still a larger show of force and all of these met light resistance. The only substantive Iraqi reprisal so far and the biggest of this war has been the firing of a missile against a brigade headquarter which has caused the largest number of casualties in a single combat-related incident so far.

The coalition forces have established their presence in key sectors of the city and it is now a matter of time before they get the regime leadership including Saddam Hussein whose options are limited to being killed or captured or taking his own life.

The battle for Basra which was making rather slow progress, received a nudge by the Americans' spectacular push into Baghdad. So the fight for Basra was joined in full earnest after 19 days of probing and prodding. The attack on Basra was probably induced by the quick success of the Americans in Baghdad. The capture of Baghdad would have hastened the fall of Basra. The reverse may not have been true.

Even so, units of First UK Division, the Black Watch, Royal Fusiliers, Irish Guards, Scots Dragoon Guards are slowly but surely closing in on Baghdad. The American units, unlike the British (and like the Indians) do not have a regimental system in their army, therefore their units are not drawn after region or ethnic groups. They are merely numbered like 2 Marines of 3 Brigade and so on.

In the days ahead, the battles of Basra and Baghdad will be studied for the different operational strategies that were employed by the British and the American forces. There has been serious criticism of the operational plans especially about miscalculation and underestimation of Iraqi resistance, the uprising by the Iraqis and the efficacy of the battle for the hearts and minds.

The biggest upset of the war was the diplomatic failure to get Turkey on board and despite the optimism that Turkey would relent, operational plans were not changed till the very end. This prevented the development of the northern thrust as well as having adequate troops as follow-on forces. The best plan, however is the one that succeeds and so full marks to General Tommy Franks and his subordinate commanders for making the plan work notwithstanding the doubts attached to it.

3 Infantry division and 7 Cavalry have together achieved what must be the fastest and longest advance of 500 kms over desert terrain in less than three weeks. The Indian Army's yardstick for advance against light opposition in the deserts is about 60 to 80 km in three or four days. This includes laying of duckboard tracks for the follow-on soft tyre vehicles which the US 5 Corps did not have to lay as they moved on the roads.

In the 1971 war, the deepest the desert corps reached across the Rajasthan desert was up to the area of Chhachhro, 70 kms deep in the Umarkot region of Pakistan. The collapse of the regime in Baghdad will be hastened by a concentrated barrage of psychological warfare to break the resolve of the militia and irregulars and undermine what is left of the leadership. In the 1971 war against East Pakistan once Dacca had been surrounded, thousands of leaflets were dropped over the city and a couple of Indian fighter aircraft kept buzzing upon the city and the presidential palace where the Pakistani military leadership was supposed to be, day and night.

The paradrop at Tangail, north of Dacca, proved to be the trump card. BBC radio catalysed the surrender by announcing that 5,000 paratroopers had been dropped when in fact the actual figure was only 700. Instead of the ceasefire that Pakistan was offering, the Indian Army was able to extract a total surrender.

The coalition command is close to a military victory of the type they initially achieved in Afghanistan by taking Kabul. The script for Iraq may not be quite the same as in Afghanistan but the Americans are looking out for the Hamid Karzai of Iraq. Meanwhile, retired Lt Gen Jay Garner is awaiting orders to take over as military governor of Iraq. It seems that like in Afghanistan, the military plans have outpaced the political dispensation planned for Iraq.

Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)


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