OUTSKIRTS OF KARBALA, Iraq—Near the holy city of Karbala, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division hoped to find the battle it's been looking for since it landed in the Iraqi desert from the pine woods of Georgia: a climactic showdown with the elite troops of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.
The U.S. goal is two-fold: to blow through the Karbala Gap and open the road to Baghdad, and to pin and crush the Medina Division and any other Republican Guard force blocking the way.
Everything else that had taken place in 13 days of war was prologue. In this fight, the United States and its allies hope to tip the balance in the war by laying the groundwork for the fall of the capital, 50 miles northeast, and destroying one of the most important pillars of Saddam's regime.
On Tuesday, U.S. soldiers preparing for battle were given pills to protect them in case of a nerve gas attack, an Iraqi tactic that is feared and expected at some point as troops get closer to Baghdad.
As three armored brigades began skirting the outskirts of Karbala, a city of 400,000 people, the U.S. military is counting on its massive advantages in firepower, battlefield intelligence and air support to compensate for the relatively small size of the attacking force.
About 10,000 to 11,000 American soldiers were taking on perhaps half that many Iraqi soldiers. A 2-to-1 advantage might seem like a big edge, but traditional military doctrine calls for attacking forces to outnumber dug-in defenders by 4-to-1 or 5-to-1.
The 3rd Infantry, equipped with 60-ton tanks and more lightly armored Bradley fighting vehicles, is a tight fit in the 25-mile-wide Karbala Gap.
Bounded on the west by the Razzaza Reservoir and on the east by the swampy flats of the Euphrates River, the Karbala Gap is a battlefield chosen by the Iraqis.
Pentagon officials said the Medina Division, which was badly bloodied by American forces in the first Persian Gulf War, positioned itself right between the reservoir and river. To get to Baghdad, the Americans would have to go through them.
That was OK with Gen. Tommy Franks and other coalition commanders. Their aim is to win not by outmaneuvering the Iraqis, as part of the much larger U.S. force did in Kuwait a decade ago, but by pounding them, first from the air and then on the ground.
After several days of heavy bombing by U.S. Air Force and Navy planes and Army Apache helicopters, the strength of the Medina Division, along with other Republican Guard outfits, had been severely "degraded," in military terminology.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday at the Pentagon that two divisions had seen their combat capability—in men and equipment—cut in half.
As many as a thousand Air Force, Navy and Marine flights a day have been hitting the three Republican Guard divisions that U.S. ground forces will face in their drive to the Iraqi capital: the Medina Division to the southwest, the al Nida Division to the south and the Baghdad Division to the southeast.
But with the Iraqi tanks hiding in revetments, earthen walls, and in palm groves, there is no way for the U.S. military to know how much damage the air attacks had done to the Medina division until the ground forces began attacking it.
Under the cover of bad weather and darkness, Saddam's regime has been reinforcing some Republican Guard divisions. One division was reported at 70 percent of its fighting capabilities one day last week, and at 75 percent the next day.
The Guard's Hammurabi Division was reportedly moving to reinforce the Medina Division, perhaps rebuilding its combat power to 60 percent of what it had been.
The six Republican Guard divisions—three armored, one mechanized and two infantry—began the war with 60,000 troops or more, according to most Western estimates.
The American battle plan called for sending one of the 3rd Infantry's three combat brigades through the eastern reaches of Karbala, an Islamic holy city, and another through a 3-mile-wide neck of dry land between the city's western edges and the reservoir, which covers hundreds of square miles.
A third brigade was to follow through the gap and work its way around and behind the Medina Division to hold it in place until it is destroyed.
American planners would have preferred to operate in the open terrain that enabled U.S. forces to blast apart whole Iraqi tank divisions in the 1991 Gulf War. But they had to hit the Guard where they found it.
(STORY CAN END HERE)
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
"A choke point is always a concern," said Col. Dan Allyn, the commander of the 3rd Brigade, which was tapped to lead the attack. "I hope to make the right decisions at the right time to protect my forces."
A brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, moving north into Iraq on the left flank of the 3rd Division, was to leapfrog north of Karbala to block any efforts to reinforce the Medina Division.
But two of the 101st's three brigades are still to the south, fighting to keep the American supply lines clear. To further complicate matters, the 101st is a "light division," lacking the tanks and artillery to face Iraq's Soviet-made T-72 tanks head-on. It's equipped with tank-killing Apache helicopters but has no armor of its own, and the U.S. commanders may be reluctant to send a single brigade to block an entire Republican Guard division.
As the Army attacks around Karbala, the U.S. plan called for Marine Corps forces on the opposite side of the Euphrates Valley, 80 miles to the east, to launch a coordinated but smaller attack on the road to Al Kut.
The capture of that city would give the United States both southern and eastern avenues of attack on Baghdad.
U.S. commanders don't want to reveal their strategy as U.S. forces near Baghdad. The general outline remains attacking the capital from a number of directions, although commanders now believe that ending the war will require capturing the city. If they were ever counting on the collapse of Saddam's government, they aren't any more.
"I don't think the regime is going to collapse. We're going to have to capture or kill those guys," one U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq said.
On every level, the 3rd Division is superior to the Medina Division or any other Iraqi unit.
The Iraqi's best tank is the old T-72. Its vulnerability was shown 12 years ago when the American M1A1 Abrams tanks picked them off in droves at distances of up to three miles. Iraqi tank commanders could not even see their enemy from that far away.
No Abrams tank had ever been lost in battle until last week, when Iraqi troops using tripod-mounted Kornet missiles or anti-aircraft guns destroyed two in a skirmish on a bridge. U.S. intelligence is unsure of how many of the Russian-made missiles the Iraqis have.
American soldiers, equipped with night-vision goggles, have a huge edge over Iraqis troops. The U.S. military, in fact, prefers to operate at night, where its advantages in technology are multiplied by the foe's relative blindness.
In space, U.S. satellites are capable of seeing the entire battlefield. The Air Force's Joint Stars aircraft can locate Iraqi vehicles. The unmanned Predator surveillance plane, equipped with video cameras, permits U.S. commanders far in the rear to watch the battle, live, as it unfolds.
At lower altitudes, Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers have been attacking the Iraqi tanks with missiles and bombs, while the Army's Apache helicopters have swept in at gun-turret level with Hellfire antitank missiles.
The biggest U.S. concern was that the regime would use nontraditional weapons to gain an edge.
That worry has not been limited to chemical weapons. It also includes the possibility that Iraqi artillery might blow up the dam holding back the billions of gallons of water in the Razzaza Reservoir, thereby flooding the narrow Karbala Gap.
U.S. intelligence sources have indicated that American special forces had seized the dam. But it was uncertain whether such light forces could defend the dam against a determined artillery barrage.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):