SOUTH OF KARBALA, Iraq—The first decisive battle of the war in Iraq may be coming in a place called the Karbala Gap.
After days of pounding the Medina Division of Iraq's Republican Guard with airpower and artillery, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is preparing to launch the war's first major ground attack against Saddam Hussein's best soldiers.
If the 3rd Infantry can punch through the Gap, a 20- to 25-mile wide sliver of land about 50 miles south of Baghdad between the Euphrates River and Lake Razzaza, that would open the southern and western approaches to the capital.
But if the 3rd Infantry can't rapidly outflank the Medina Division or push the Iraqis out of the earthen defenses, palm groves and built-up areas where they've put their tanks and artillery, U.S. forces may return to pounding the Republican Guard from the air while waiting for the U.S. Marines to the east to start their push toward Baghdad.
U.S. officials said Monday the Guard's Nebuchadnezzar Division had been moved from near Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, south to reinforce the Medina Division near Karbala.
It will fall to another U.S. division, the 101st Airborne from Fort Campbell, Ky., to leapfrog northward and block another 8,000-man Republican Guard division, the Hammurabi, from moving south to reinforce the other two or withdrawing to make a last stand in Baghdad.
The Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which was supposed to join the 3rd Infantry at Karbala, remained more than 100 miles behind, trying to secure the U.S. supply line through the town of Samawa on the Euphrates.
"A hell of a fight," said one Army commander, surveying the hours ahead.
If the Iraqis repulse an American attack by using Russian-made anti-tank missiles or chemical weapons, or by destroying the dams that contain Lake Razzaza and flooding the gap, the U.S. commander, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, may keep the pressure on while the U.S. 4th Infantry Division moves up to reinforce the 3rd.
The lead elements of the 4th Infantry, from Fort Hood, Texas, begin arriving in Kuwait on Tuesday, but it will take them 10 days or so to get into position.
American planes and helicopters have been preparing the battlefield for the 3rd Infantry near Karbala for several days. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps jets flew around-the-clock raids near the city of 300,000 Monday, including several thunderous bombing raids that could be felt 30 miles away.
U.S. pilots met a sharp increase in anti-aircraft fire but continued to increase the frequency of their strikes.
"It will almost be continuous after a couple of days," said Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, aboard the USS Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean Sea. "There's a lot more fighting that's going on the ground."
Senior U.S. officials said on Monday that they think the air attacks have destroyed about half of the Medina Division's fighting power, but they can't be certain until the ground attack begins.
Field commanders received final briefings on Monday as tank forces of the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team raced northward across the flat desert plains south of the city.
If U.S. forces move directly into the Gap, where the Iraqis are waiting for them, they'll face a triple threat from Russian-made anti-tank missiles than can pierce their armor, from chemical weapons and from torrents of water that could be loosed from Lake Razzaza on their western flank.
The Iraqis' Kornet laser-guided anti-tank missile is a mobile system mounted on a tripod that can be fired from two miles away. The missile can pierce the heavy armor on American M1A1 tanks.
Kornet missiles struck and disabled two M1A1 tanks a week ago in a fight near Najaf, the first time an M1 tank had ever been lost in combat. The Kornet was developed in 1994—three years after U.S. forces faced the Iraqis in the 1991 Gulf War, and also after the cease-fire agreement of that war prohibited Iraq from acquiring such weapons.
U.S. forces also face a continued threat of chemical weapons, particularly as they draw nearer to Baghdad. U.S. forces have discovered gas masks and protective suits at many locations in Iraq, and commanders believe that if the Iraqis plan to use the weapons, the gap would be a likely place to do so because U.S. forces would find themselves in a relatively narrow corridor.
An advance through the gap also could present a unique problem. U.S. troops would have to advance along a narrow plain beside huge Lake Razzaza.
Commanders said Monday that U.S. special operations forces are guarding the lake's dams to prevent Iraqi forces from opening or destroying them to flood the gap, but the Iraqis also could attack the dams with artillery.
Avoiding the Gap by driving through the city of Karbala is not an attractive alternative.
U.S. forces believe the Iraqis have positioned several dozen tanks in or near the city, mainly vintage T-55 and T-62 models, and have as many as 5,000 militia in the city.
Moreover, attacking and securing the city would risk further inflaming anti-American sentiment because it is the site of the tomb of the Shiite Muslim leader Imam Hussein, who was killed there in the year 680. With its gilded dome and minarets, the tomb makes the city the second only to Mecca as a pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims.
(Brown and Harper are traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division in central Iraq. Thomma reported from Washington. Contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Sandy Bauers aboard the USS Harry S. Truman; Mark Johnson with the 82nd Airborne near Samawah, Iraq; and Patrick Peterson with the 4th Amphibian Assault Battalion near Qal at Sukkar, Iraq.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): Karbala Gap