MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—When U.S. Army tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles rolled into Baghdad on Saturday, they came not to occupy the city but to deliver a message: The Americans have arrived.
The brief foray into the Iraqi capital was part of an unfolding strategy to test the city's defenses, counter Iraqi propaganda and encourage a coup against Saddam Hussein's government.
Having reached the gates of Baghdad after 18 days of war, U.S. military commanders are not about to rush headlong into the city. No one expects a repeat of the easy Panama invasion in 1989, when pinpoint U.S. attacks on 27 crucial military and civilian locations in the capital crippled the government of Manuel Noriega in two days.
At the same time, no one wants a repeat of the siege of Berlin in World War II, where a brutish Soviet artillery assault killed 300,000 people and left the city in ruins.
So American forces are looking for a third way, one that avoids full-on urban warfare and the U.S. and civilian casualties it would bring, yet doesn't allow Saddam to turn it into a grinding war of attrition.
Asked when the Marines would begin operations into Baghdad itself, Col. Larry Brown, operations director for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF), said Friday: "Soon. As soon as we can."
Major Gen. Victor Renuart, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said Saturday's mission was primarily intended to show that American troops could enter the Iraqi capital at any time, despite the government's claims that it had the upper hand.
Similar probes will probably be followed by sharp jabs at Iraqi leadership targets coupled with special operations and cautious foot advances while American jets pound the headquarters of Saddam's Baath Party, secret services and the ultraloyal 16,000 Special Republican Guard troops protecting the capital.
"We have to tear down those institutions" so that Iraqi civilians who oppose Saddam feel free to help the Americans in the battle for Baghdad, said IMEF chief planner Col. Fred Milburn.
U.S. forces already plan to establish a loose cordon partway around the city—anchored in operations bases just off the built-up areas and named after NFL teams—that will allow civilians and food through but not the military.
Special medical and humanitarian assistance teams will probably nibble around the edges of the city to win over the residents' hearts while also at the same time gathering intelligence. Renuart said U.S. troops would also try to restore electricity and other city services as soon as possible.
Most of the city operations are expected to be carried out by the U.S. Army's V Corps, with the Marines responsible for the part of the capital that is more residential and contains less leadership targets.
But IMEF officers acknowledge that until Friday they didn't have a detailed plan for going into Baghdad, partly because the job was handed to them just last week, partly because many of their war games just didn't go that far.
One IMEF intelligence officer acknowledged he had "very little" recent intelligence about the defenses in Baghdad, the locations of resistance bases or the prevailing sentiments among the capital's more than 5 million people.
"We expect them to use the same tactics they used in the south and occupy hospitals, occupy schools, occupy mosques," he added. "But we just don't know what the enemy is going to do."
The American forces intend to draw on the experience of British troops in Basra, where coalition forces tried to win over the civilian population while dealing with stubborn military resistance.
"We all see Baghdad as Basra writ large," said Lt. Col. Jamie Martin, a British Army officer who serves as liaison between the 25,000 British troops in southern Iraq and IMEF's combat headquarters.
But Baghdad may be even tougher to deal with.
The Iraqi capital is defended by the Special Republican Guard, hand-picked from Saddam's home region of Tikrit, plus thousands of Baath Party members, the almost fanatical Saddam Fedayeen militias, plus regular army soldiers who retreated to the capital after their units were defeated elsewhere.
Saddam can also call in even more reinforcements from the two Republican Guard divisions still deployed north of Baghdad, where no U.S. troops have set foot and only America's warplanes threaten them.
Saddam's forces have reportedly mined city parks, dug tanks into streets, placed machine guns at intersections and handed out tens of thousands of rocket-propelled grenades that can knock out most U.S. armored vehicles.
Americans will be operating at the end of a 300-mile logistics line from Kuwait, against a wily and vicious enemy that allegedly has chemical and biological weapons and is making a last stand on its home turf.
"Maybe Baghdad will be more successful, but it's a big maybe," said Martin.
(Tamayo reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.