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Central, local command disagree on air, ground cooperation efforts

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his civilian aides have pressed Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, to attack the Republican Guard divisions defending Baghdad as soon as U.S. Air Force planes and Army attack helicopters have softened them up, according to Pentagon officials.

The officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said the civilian war planners want to clear the way for swift takedown of Saddam Hussein's regime in the Iraqi capital.

So it apparently falls to one heavy Army division, one light Army division and a division-plus force of Marine infantry to destroy at least two and possibly more Republican Guard tank divisions dug in and blocking the approaches to Baghdad. In other words, roughly 100,000 U.S. servicemen could be facing about 30,000 Iraqi troops, not enough for the 4- or 5-to-1 ratio that conventional military doctrine calls for when attacking an entrenched enemy.

The Americans are far better trained and equipped than the Iraqis, and they have a huge technological edge, especially when fighting at night. But military analysts say there may not be enough of them to do the job.

Softening up the Medina, Baghdad and Hammurabi Divisions from the air will be absolutely vital to success. The question is whether the Air Force is willing to take on the job.

One retired general who has followed the unfolding war plan closely told Knight Ridder that the U.S. ground commanders in the Persian Gulf are privately unhappy with the amount of close air support their troops are getting from the Air Force, and likewise are unhappy that "all of the intelligence assets have been diverted to support the Air Force in downtown Baghdad, leaving little or nothing for the ground forces."

He also said the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and V Corps were forced to leave behind most of their long-range Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Rumsfeld told them that air power would do the job. "But it is not doing the job so far. It is focused elsewhere."

The general, who also asked not to be identified, said the 3rd Infantry was sent to war with only one battalion of MLRS rocket-launched artillery, a powerful long-range system that can reach out 30 miles and obliterate more than a third of a square mile of enemy soldiers or enemy tanks. Usually, it would have brought two brigades of MLRS launchers, about six battalions.

The V Corps likewise was sent into battle with one battalion of MLRS launchers when usually it would have a separate brigade (three battalions) to support its attack helicopters and several more brigades for general operations.

What this means is that the front-line forces, which use the deadly MLRS rockets to reach out and soften up the enemy positions while U.S. forces are still out of range of Iraq's artillery, are now depending on the Air Force to attack the Republican Guard divisions and clear the way for Apache attack helicopters to kill the enemy tanks.

The general said he hoped that Franks could "get the Air Force to step up to the plate" and work on the targets important to the ground commanders and work with the Apaches. "The Air Force really hates having to do this," he said.

A senior Air Force official, William Bodie, said this wasn't true. "Way more than a third of the 600-700 daily sorties have been in support of ground forces. There has been a tremendous amount of progress in our ground support efforts since Afghanistan."

Bodie said most of the damage to 30 Army Apache helicopters that conducted a long-range raid on the Medina Division earlier this week was caused by small-arms fire. "That's guerrilla war stuff, Viet Cong stuff. The Apaches were flying very low over a flat floodplain area and they were very vulnerable. There's nothing we or the MLRS artillery could have done about that."

Pentagon officials said Rumsfeld had been pressing Franks to attack the Republican Guard outside Baghdad without waiting for the 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized) to arrive from Fort Hood, Texas, and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, its scout unit, to be flown into the battle zone from Fort Carson, Colo. Neither will be ready for battle for at least two weeks.

"I hope (Franks) won't do this," said one retired senior officer. "He should stand on the perimeter and grind them down. He has got to bring the 4th Division in to do this. He can't do it with what he's got."

Urgent orders have gone out to airlift elements of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Polk, La., to the war zone—and to divert 2,000 Marines from the Horn of Africa to Iraq. Both those forces will be used to secure the long, vulnerable supply lines east and west of the Euphrates River and the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

The men of the 4th Infantry, the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force can only hope that Rumsfeld and his aides are correct that air power, precision-guided munitions and high technology have made old-fashioned rockets, long-range artillery and tanks unnecessary.


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