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War in Iraq could be more water than sand

KUWAIT CITY—Lt. Matthew K. Massey, a U.S. Marine Corps combat engineer, says he almost laughs when he hears talk about a "desert war" with Iraq. "Maybe it will be more like a water war," he said.

Massey knows that American ground troops attacking Baghdad from Kuwait will have to cross the mighty Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the muddy Mesopotamia region between them plus a vast latticework of irrigation canals and farm paddies that Iraqi troops can flood at will.

President Saddam Hussein could also blow up three dams around Baghdad and send a wall of water rushing down the southern approaches to his capital city, where he has entrenched elite troops for a final stand.

"If he lets loose with those he can really slow us down and create some problems," said Lt. Cmdr. Pat Garin, 39, of Albuquerque, N.M., executive officer of the Navy Seabees' 74th Mobile Construction Battalion.

The more than 150,000 U.S. troops that President Bush is massing for an attack—unless Saddam gives up his alleged weapons of mass destruction—are well prepared to overcome water obstacles.

They have brought nearly a mile's worth of erector set-like Mabey & Johnson bridge sections, several 210-foot Medium Girder Bridges and dozens of 60-foot Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges and floating bridge pontoons.

"We know we'll have a considerable number of gap crossings if we head north," said Massey, a Commerce, Ga., native with the 1st Marine Division, using the combat engineers' terminology for rivers, canals and dry ditches.

U.S. troops in Iraq will find a nation with experience in the military uses of water dating back 2,500 years, when Emperor Cyrus of Persia diverted the Euphrates and sent troops across the dry riverbed to conquer Babylon.

More recently, Iraq and Iran flooded and drained fields to their own advantage on the southern front of their war in the 1980s, in what one Western diplomat at the time called "the War of the Pumps."

At the start of the war in 1980, Iraq created Fish Lake, a shallow moat totaling 300 square miles and designed to block an Iranian ground attack against the city of Basra, 28 miles north of the border with Kuwait.

Iraqi troops retreating from a 1986 Iranian attack on the nearby Faw peninsula pumped water into the surrounding grid of salt evaporation flats to slow the attackers, even as the Iranians opened sluice gates to drain them.

In recent years Saddam has also drained the Hawize marshes that straddle the Iraq-Iran border north of Basra, home to Shiite Muslims who have long fought against Iraq's predominantly Sunni Muslim regime.

But the most stunning piece of water combat engineering was the set of 10 parallel ditches, each 10 miles long and 300 feet wide, that a French commercial satellite photography company spotted the Iranians digging in 1987 near the border with Iraq.

Western diplomats in Baghdad at the time speculated the ditches were designed to drain Fish Lake and clear the way for an attack on Basra. The war ended in 1988 and the ditches were apparently never used.

Saddam Hussein has already threatened to blow up his oil wells if America attacks, as he did to more than 900 Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991 when a U.S.-led coalition drove Iraqi invaders out of this country.

But several Seabees and combat engineers interviewed in Kuwait as well as civilian analysts in the United States said that water obstacles will be one of the key concerns of American ground troops heading to Baghdad, 280 miles north of Kuwait.

Saddam could flood southern Iraq by destroying the Lak al Milh dam southwest of Baghdad and two others on the Tigris and Euphrates, Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a recent report.

The rainy season just ending brought three times the normal rains to the region, and with spring now beginning, the region's rivers will be heavy with snow melt, said one senior Seabee official.

Another Seabee officer said that parts of Mesopotamia are so muddy and heavily wooded that his unit has considered switching from desert camouflage uniforms to the darker woodlands pattern to blend in better.

Baghdad itself, where Saddam has reportedly deployed his elite Republican Guard troops for a final stand, straddles the Tigris, with 12 bridges connecting its east and west sides. Three of them were among the 134 bridges bombed by the U.S.-led coalition during the 1991 Gulf War.

"We know that the further north you go the more moisture you're into," said Sgt. Dale Vanormer, 32, of Pittsburgh, a combat engineer with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. "And we are prepared."

"The job is to map a good route, avoid water obstacles when possible and if necessary cross them rapidly and safely," said retired Col. Bill Gross of Dallas, former senior combat engineer with the III Army Corps.

The Army has ordered its 94th and 527th Engineer Battalions to the Middle East, and two activated reserve companies are equipped with the Armored Vehicle Launched Bridges, tank-mounted scissors bridges that were recently reinforced to bear the 70-ton weight of the Abrams main battle tanks.

Combat engineers say their task will not be easy.

Front-line units crossing the border into Iraq will cut and blast their way through barbed wire, bulldoze sand berms and ditches and drive armored plows through mine fields to clear paths for the troops behind.

Crossing water obstacles farther north will be more dangerous, said Sgt. Michael Smith, 38, of New York City, a Marine combat engineer, because Iraqi troops can mount heavy defenses around likely crossing points.

"That's going to be a concern, because water obstacles can channelize us," Smith said. "Even if bridges are up, we'll have to work carefully to make it across because if he's smart, those are going to be his kill zones."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.