Home > News > Columnists > Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta
The battle for Baghdad
March 27, 2003
The war was one week old yesterday. The ground war in the '91 Gulf War lasted only four days. There are big battles brewing around Baghdad and Basra. As US troops close in on Baghdad, the images of the war that you see on television are neither Plan A nor Plan B. It is Plan C, hatched in Washington and Qatar after Turkey caused the biggest upset of the war. It refused permission for coalition forces to use its soil to develop the famed northern thrust to Baghdad.
Plan A had Turkey on board, Plan B was without it. But both plans had a sustained air campaign from the word 'go' with ground operations simultaneously or following soon afterwards. The first 48 hours of the campaign were billed as a cloudburst of 3,000 precision guided missiles across 700 military targets. Plan C is a scaled down operation demonstrating flexibility and limited use of force instead of the customary overwhelming application of military power preceded by massive air bombardment.
It is this selective use of technology-driven military force cushioned by an elaborate campaign of psychological warfare premised upon minimal Iraqi resistance that was to trigger off the collapse from within of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. The surgical strikes in Baghdad are aimed to avoid civilian casualties. It seems the Rumsfeld strategy of graduated escalation and use of force has replaced at least in Iraq for the time being, the erstwhile Powell doctrine of preponderance of force.
The Washington Post's Bob Woodward has revealed the war was already 48 hours old before it officially began on March 20 through OPLAN 1003 V when 31 Special Operating Teams of 300 men were infiltrated into Iraq to prevent and monitor moves by the Iraqi high command to use chemical or biological weapons, attack Israel with Scuds or destroy the oil fields. The original plan to commence the war on March 21 with massive air strikes followed by land attacks nine hours later was advanced on a tip off by the CIA that led to the selective strikes to kill Saddam Hussein through a surgical strike.
The rest is already history. Ending speculation over his fate, Hussein appeared on Iraqi television assuring his country of victory. The surgical strikes have not worked so far either to take out Hussein or to cause a coup against him. Nor has Plan C which is stuck in desert sands.
Plan C envisages the development of two thrusts towards Baghdad one each astride the Tigris and Euphrates rivers by US 5 and a British expeditionary force. Both are now stuck, the Americans south of Baghdad and the British near the port cities of Umm Qasr and Basra.
The failure to clear the port cities and secure the peninsula has not allowed this force to develop the eastern pincer along the Tigris to Baghdad. On the 5 Corps front, mechanised columns have made a spirited night-and-day dash towards Baghdad and advanced nearly 200 miles towards Baghdad. At places they are only 100 km from Baghdad. Iraqi guerrillas and fidayeen [suicide squads] have ambushed several follow up vehicles of the advancing US tank columns. Not since World War II in the North African desert when Rommel's Panzer divisions tore across Allied defences has there been a comparable armoured thrust as the one now by US 5 Corps.
For any armoured operation to succeed, as the Indian Army knows from its experience of 1971 in the Rajasthan desert, it must have its lifeline of food, fuel and water in tow. If this is separated from the main column, the future of operations falls in jeopardy. The security of rear areas and lines of communications is vital for the momentum and punch of the spearhead of tanks, artillery and mechanised infantry. It is clear that 5 Corps has overreached itself and got bogged down as the support echelons were trapped by Iraqi stay-behind parties.
On both fronts, coalition forces have taken combat casualties but it is the British who have suffered tragic loss of pilots from accidents and friendly fire. Iraqi resistance has come from small groups of local guerrillas stiffened by fidayeen and Republican Guards who have engaged troops from built-up areas or simply ambushed coalition detachments, unable to keep up with the main force and in some cases, simply lost in the desert.
This could just be the trailer for the bitter battles planned by the 35,000 strong Republican Guard nearer Baghdad. The operational picture that is emerging is covered by the fog of war. There is just one main mechanised column approaching Baghdad. By the time it reaches the outskirts of the city or contacts the 'two steel rings of defences' around the capital and is able to establish a fire base, it would have become a spent force. Fresh infantry, more tanks and guns would be needed to neutralise the resistance on the periphery.
The preparation for battle will require softening up of Iraqi defences and this can be a protracted affair. At least two other if not three thrusts will have to be launched to close on to the city from different directions. A northern front by airborne forces has to happen in the next few days. Fighting in built-up areas is the dread of any attacking force. The battle for Baghdad in some ways may be reminiscent of the multi-directional race for Dacca by the Indian Army in 1971.
Fortunately a barrage of leaflets, psychological warfare and secret communication with the Pakistan military leaders (all this is happening in Iraq) and the Mukti Bahini, led to the surrender of Dacca in 13 days after the start of the war. The decision to go for Baghdad if everything else fails will not be an easy one and will inevitably be bloody and brutal. It will reflect the US' newfound willingness to commit its own forces into battle after 9/11. The outcome of the war and the battle for Baghdad is, as coalition forces commander, General Tommy Franks says, not in doubt. But at what cost?
The danger now is if there are another couple of ambushes, accidents and downing of helicopters by Iraqi ground fire, the coalition forces may lose their cool and abandon the Rumsfeld doctrine of minimum force and surgical strikes and instead flatten the Republican Guard defences with Daisy Cutters and other superheavy bombs with enormous collateral damage and civilian casualties.
Already there are reports of a humanitarian disaster in the making in and around Basra which is without water and electricity. Clearly Operation Iraqi Freedom has got stalled but President George Bush says -- and perhaps rightly -- 'the war has just begun.' Given the Iraqi strategy of deploying stay-behind parties of fidayeen it will be unwise for coalition forces to bypass too many nodal centres in a deep thrust towards Baghdad.
Unless Umm Qasr and Basra are cleared, which can take a long time, the entire relief and humanitarian effort will be unable to take off. Basra is known to have stiff pockets of resistance and several missiles are being fired periodically against Kuwait. The Patriot missiles have so far intercepted most of the Iraqi missiles while many have gone off course.
The war is being reported extensively -- and differently -- by so-called 'embedded' and unattached journalists. A picture has emerged from both sides. On Iraqi and Al Jazeera television as well as other electronic media there is a competing and contradictory surfeit of information.
While the images are unlimited, analysis and assessments are lacking. Such is the war that no one is able to bridge the gap between truth and fiction. The crystal ball today is still showing a short war, three weeks long. But who knows? A deal may still be struck with Saddam and his sons to leave Iraq in order to avoid the bloodshed in Baghdad.
Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta