WASHINGTON—After President Bush's "head shot"—an audacious attempt to kill Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by attacking the bunker where he was believed to be sleeping—failed to produce the collapse of the Iraqi regime, America's political and military leaders on Friday adopted a two-track strategy to hasten the end of the war.
While U.S. officials and emissaries continued a monthlong effort to persuade key Iraqi generals to surrender, the president ordered an aerial blitzkrieg of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities to proceed on schedule Friday. Administration officials continue to hope that the combination of carrots and Tomahawk cruise missiles will convince some commanders of Iraq's elite Republican Guard to quit without fighting the American ground forces who are advancing from Kuwait.
But with those forces more than 100 miles into southern Iraq and moving north and west toward Baghdad, the administration no longer had the luxury of waiting for an easier, cheaper outcome.
So it's pursuing the dual approach, continuing to press Iraqi commanders to keep their troops in the barracks and sit out the coming fight while raining cruise missiles and 2,000-pound JDAM smart bombs on targets all across Iraq.
On the receiving end of Friday night's high explosives were Baghdad's Ministry of Defense, Saddam's palace, Baath Party Headquarters and Republican Guard facilities as well as other military targets.
Saddam's hometown of Tikrit was believed to have taken a particularly heavy pounding, since it has long been rumored that Saddam and his family might retreat there to make a last stand among their own people.
One intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Knight Ridder the opening salvo was only "a taste of what's to come if they try to resist." He added that the air campaign has plenty of room for escalation if the Iraqis continue to fight.
On the ground, U.S. forces are advancing on three fronts, and they will soon open a fourth in northern Iraq.
From Kuwait, American Marines, Navy SEALs and British forces seized Iraq's main oil port and nearby facilities and are advancing toward the southern city of Basra. Once the mostly Shiite Muslim city, a hotbed of resentment toward Saddam and his Sunni Muslim regime, has been taken, the U.S. war plan calls for encouraging television coverage of "liberated Iraq."
From Basra, the Marines and the British are expected to head north through the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers toward Baghdad, Iraq's capital and, in military parlance, its main "center of gravity."
Meanwhile to the west, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division has been moving from Kuwait through the desert toward the city of Nasiriyah on the Euphrates, seizing the Tallil air base on the way. Part of the 3rd Infantry's mission has been to seize bridges crossing the Euphrates, which also would put its heavy M1 Abrams tanks on the road to Baghdad.
Far to the west, American special operations forces, including elements of the 75th Ranger Regiment from Fort Bragg, N.C., are reported to have seized two airfields in the western Iraq desert near the Jordanian border. The capture of the two sprawling bases, named H-2 and H-3, would give the U.S. and allied forces new forward operating bases on the road that leads from Jordan to Baghdad. That action also might help block the exit routes of any of Saddam's cronies attempting to flee the country.
The fourth American thrust, by the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions from Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Bragg, respectively, has yet to begin. Both divisions have been assembling their forces and collecting their equipment in Kuwait, and they will move into Iraq by helicopter and perhaps also by parachute, in the case of the 82nd Airborne. The Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy, which is also part of the war plan, could join them.
In addition to encouraging Iraqi commanders to quit, the escalating air campaign that began Friday is intended to destroy Iraq's ability to fight back and to blind Saddam and his top aides to what will be happening south, west and north of them.
U.S. commanders now have to start worrying about ever-lengthening supply lines stretching out behind the 3rd Infantry and its fuel-guzzling Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles as they plunge north and west toward Baghdad, 350 miles from where they started.
The going is expected to get much tougher the closer American forces get to: the Iraqi capital, where Saddam has entrenched his best Republican Guard units in concentric circles around the city; to Tikrit, his hometown; and to the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.
Everyone involved hopes there will be no need to take the Iraqi capital house-by-house, block-by-block, with attendant high casualties on both sides and among the civilian innocents.
The pressure will be building, and not just on Saddam.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.