DOHA, Qatar—In a war in which speed killed, coalition commanders were always two or three days ahead of the Iraqis.
American troops racing toward Baghdad crossed bridges rigged with explosives before the Iraqis could destroy them. Soldiers and Marines passed the Iraqis' so-called red zone around Baghdad before Saddam Hussein's forces could unleash any chemical or biological weapons. And U.S. forces drove into the heart of the Iraqi capital before Saddam could drag them into a bloody, protracted urban street fight.
"We are inside their decision loop," said one U.S. Central Command official, referring to the military's description of the process of collecting and analyzing information, then acting on it.
"That's what's turning this thing. We're doing things before he (Saddam) can expect them."
"The U.S. advance on Baghdad is something that military historians and academics will pore over in great detail for decades to come," said Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the British commander.
"It will be a required case study for staff college students throughout the world, who will examine the dexterity, audacity and sheer brilliance of how the U.S. put the plan into effect."
Coalition commanders said the decisive blow came Monday, when an Air Force B-1 bomber delivered four 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bombs to a restaurant where what the CIA calls an "access agent"—someone with secondhand information on Saddam's whereabouts—said Saddam and his sons were meeting.
U.S. intelligence officials said they still weren't certain whether the Iraqi leaders survived, but within two days, their regime had crumbled like the restaurant.
The Iraqis' Thuraya satellite phones fell silent, including one on which Saddam's younger son, Qusai, liked to chat. Iraqi officials stopped giving orders to their forces, and the only Saddam supporter to appear in public was Information Minister Mohammed al Sahhaf.
His memorable denials that the Americans were anywhere close seemed delusional, but coalition war planners say he probably believed—at least initially—the outdated or outright false field reports being provided by lower-level officers.
With the Iraqis blind and self-deluded, the key to the war was the real-time battlefield images the coalition commanders received at the nerve center in their Qatar headquarters. Using computers, satellites and other advanced communications systems, allied commander Gen. Tommy Franks conferred directly with troops in the field while watching them march toward Baghdad.
The Iraqis, meanwhile, relied on radio and fiber optic communications that were constantly bombarded. Often, Iraqi troops were shocked to learn how far the Americans had advanced.
"At least one Iraqi soldier who surrendered in the south told us that while he was very much afraid of what the regime would do to him if he didn't carry out orders to destroy oil wells, he'd read all those leaflets we dropped about what we would do if he did," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.
"He was torn between fear of the regime and recognition that we were coming. I'm sure that knowing that we were already there made a big difference," he said.
"They were extremely surprised by just the sheer velocity of the plan," a Central Command official said. "We never gave the enemy a chance to decide and act. They were constantly having to react."
On April 2, a surprise attack destroyed the Medina and Baghdad divisions of Saddam's elite Republican Guard. Portions of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force sprinted around Iraqi units that had expected a frontal assault.
When the Americans struck from two directions near the cities of Kut and Karbala, they demolished Saddam's best-trained, best-equipped soldiers with little resistance.
Until then, many believed there was a battlefield pause as coalition troops waited for reinforcements. Instead, punishing air attacks had been "softening the battlefield."
On April 5, Americans staged their first armored raid into Baghdad, storming through the center of town and killing as many as 3,000 Iraqi combatants. The remaining divisions of the Republican Guard were stuck north and northeast of the capital.
American forces had seized most of the northern roads leading into and out of Baghdad, and through the checkpoints and the aerial pounding, the Republican Guard was forced to scatter.
The American plan had been to conduct a series of armored raids into Baghdad, the 3rd Infantry from the west and the Marines from the south, attacking key targets and then retreating.
But with the remnants of the Republican Guard trapped outside Baghdad, the raiders met little or no resistance. So they went into Baghdad and stayed there, overwhelming pockets of resistance and carving the capital into sections they controlled.
The climax came Wednesday, when Marine tanks filled Fardos Square in the heart of Baghdad with no opposition.
Iraqis cheered as a giant statue of Saddam was toppled. When the monument fell, the crowd danced on top.
"The end is near for the regime," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said that day, "if it hasn't already occurred."
Just over a week ago, active-duty and retired generals, most of them from the Army, ripped the war plan in television interviews, criticizing the lack of ground troops, armor and artillery, and the short air war.
Thousands of Iraqi soldiers had surrendered, but Saddam loyalists threatened to kill the soldiers or their families if they didn't return to the battlefield. Meanwhile, paramilitaries—whom U.S. officials labeled "terrorist death squads"—launched guerrilla attacks on the long coalition supply lines.
As Arab television stations showed images of killed or captured American and British soldiers, analysts questioned how the coalition would handle the "surprising" resistance.
But commanders said the critics viewed the war only from the perspective of their branches of service, and failed to grasp how air, ground and special forces units were working together in unparalleled fashion, linked by new communications systems.
Skeptics said American officials took too long to realize that Turkey wouldn't allow the 4th Infantry Division to invade Iraq from its territory. While waiting for Turkey's decision, equipment for the Army's first "digital division" remained at sea when it was needed on the battlefield. That, however, was not a blunder but a deception.
Coalition planners had wanted to base the 4th Infantry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, and its scout unit, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Carson, Colo., in Turkey, but the delay forced the Iraqis to defend a northern front that never materialized. Many of Iraq's best troops later were isolated, just as they had been in the first Persian Gulf War, when Saddam shifted troops to defend against a highly publicized amphibious assault that never occurred.
"We presented them with so many fronts, so many possibilities, they had to spread out and cover them all," a Central Command official said. "It allowed us to mass and concentrate our firepower.
"They were overwhelmed."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.