WASHINGTON—The Army's 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) and the U.S. Marines have blown past, bypassed or never encountered the Medina and Baghdad divisions of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. The Army's front-line trace is now within 20 miles of downtown Baghdad.
Now comes the hard part. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that what lies ahead could be the toughest part of the war.
President Bush has decreed that the decision about when and how to attack Baghdad rests with Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command.
With virtually all of Franks' reserves from the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions still busy trying to clear irregular resistance in the southern cities of Samawah and Nasiriyah, while the British continue to besiege Basra, Franks could decide to wait for the arriving 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), the Army's most heavily armed, most modern division, to collect its equipment in Kuwait and move north for the final push on Baghdad.
The American plan calls for conducting lightning strikes along several corridors into the heart of the sprawling city of some 5 million people, much as the British have been doing in Basra. Before they strike, a combination of overhead surveillance, electronic sensors and small teams of Special Operations personnel will pinpoint areas where Iraq's political and military leadership is hiding.
With M1A1 Abrams tanks to sharpen the point of the spear and open new doors in targeted buildings, and air power including C-130 Spectre gunships orbiting overhead, the American forces would isolate the target areas where Saddam and his loyalists are believed to be hiding and then send in company-size elements of infantry to clear the pockets building by building.
If the plan has an Achilles' heel, it's reliance on very accurate, very timely intelligence.
Here, the omens aren't so good. A U.S. attempt to "decapitate" Saddam's regime with Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision-guided "bunker buster" bombs failed. Air Force officials say they hit every "aim point" the CIA gave them. CIA officials say the Air Force didn't attack a building adjacent to the bunker that it demolished.
American intelligence officials still aren't sure whether Saddam and his two sons, Odai and Qusai, are alive or dead, much less where they are.
In southern Iraq, U.S. and British troops have been hunting, so far in vain, for the commander of Iraq's southern defenses, Gen. Ali Hasan al Majid, known as the notorious "Chemical Ali" for his role in using nerve gas on defenseless Kurds.
This Baghdad plan was drawn well before the invasion and well before the Iraqis rolled out their new tactics of using Baathist Party thugs to stiffen the resistance in regular Iraqi army units and sending out Saddam Fedayeen guerrillas to harass the Americans and British.
Senior American officials point to growing cooperation from the local populace in the south as U.S. troops defeat the guerrillas and Baathist hard-liners. But in Baghdad, the thugs and enforcers, with nowhere left to run, may still be able to discourage would-be informers.
If the American plan relies on intelligence, speed and surprise, Saddam may have Mogadishu, and maybe Stalingrad, on his mind, the sites of desperate urban battles that the foreigners lost. He began his political career as a street fighter, and he may be planning to end it the same way.
Some Army and Marine Corps officers worry that if he does, he may still have a significant number of Republican Guard soldiers alongside him. Pentagon spokesmen Wednesday proclaimed the total destruction of the Baghdad Division and the near-total destruction of the Medina Division, but the U.S. Army and the Marines met no serious opposition in their charge to the gates of Baghdad.
Some officers worry that many of Iraq's best troops and their T-72 tanks may have managed to retreat into the suburbs of Baghdad to fight another day. To make matters worse, the Iraqis haven't used their anti-aircraft radars or missiles, or the remnants of their air force, to defend Baghdad. What are they saving them for?
Even if none of his Republican Guard divisions has made it back into Baghdad, Saddam still has his 15,000-man Special Republican Guard, commanded by his son Qusai. Its members may as well die fighting in the streets because otherwise they're likely to be hanged from the lampposts of a liberated Baghdad. The Saddam Fedayeen began the war with some 60,000 men who have vowed to die for Saddam. A trickle of Arab and Palestinian volunteers for martyrdom also has reached the city.
Baghdad boasts broad highways through every section, although they weren't built with M1A1 Abrams tanks in mind. Eleven bridges connect the halves of the city, every one of them a potential chokepoint. Much of the rest of town is a rabbit warren of narrow alleyways and ramshackle buildings that are well suited for the kinds of ambushes and suicide attacks that have become familiar to Israeli troops in the West Bank.
Finally, there is the prospect that Saddam could use chemical weapons in a suicidal last stand in his capital. Everyone suspects that Iraq has nerve gas and other toxins, despite frequent denials, but coalition forces haven't found any so far. If cornered, Saddam might use them.
So despite the stunning progress that has brought the Army and Marines to the outskirts of Baghdad in less than two weeks, all the ingredients are there for a bloody rear-guard action, with attendant civilian casualties and destruction in an ancient city. That's a battle no general would ever want to fight.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.