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U.S. strategy in Iraq prevails; special ops, superior air power were key to victory

WASHINGTON—An old saw says that no war plan survives first contact with the enemy, but the central element of the American plan to defeat Iraq—quickly punching through to Baghdad—did.

Gen. Tommy Franks, the coalition commander, fixed his sights on the Iraqi capital and never wavered. After initially proposing a much larger invasion force, he eventually relented to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and assumed considerable risk by launching a bold attack with a relatively small force of only three divisions.

And instead of massing his forces, Franks split them, sending the Army's 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) charging through the largely empty desert west of the Euphrates River and his Marines through the more heavily populated area east of the river. He also ordered his commanders to bypass hostile cities and towns near or astride their main supply routes, which was even riskier.

But thanks to a great deal of clandestine work by U.S., British and Australian special operations forces and to an unprecedented air campaign that began slowly but quickly built to a breathtaking crescendo, Franks prevailed.

More than 5,000 special operators from the Air Force, the Army, Navy SEAL teams, the British and Australian Special Air Services and CIA paramilitary teams began secretly moving into Iraq from Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia months before the official beginning of the war.

The teams secured bases in western Iraq, led Kurdish rebels in the north, took control of roads and dams, and penetrated Baghdad and other cities to target the Iraqi leadership.

Day and night, a digitally connected sky full of eyes—from spy satellites to Predator drones—fed target data to fighters and bombers and a real-time view of the battlefield to Franks' headquarters in Qatar and to his subordinate commanders.

Saddam Hussein's commanders were reduced to having soldiers climb trees to look for the oncoming tidal wave. The Americans moved so fast and the airstrikes shut down so much of Iraq's communications that Saddam's commanders were often two and even three days behind the curve.

In one telling incident, an Iraqi Army major general left Baghdad heading south and drove straight into a U.S. Marine roadblock. The general thought the American lines were 100 miles south of where he died.

The American war plan had to be rapidly revised, however, when a CIA "access agent," a source with secondhand knowledge of Saddam's whereabouts, reported that the Iraqi leader and his sons were in a suburban Baghdad house early on the morning of March 19. The target was blasted with Tomahawk cruise missiles and 2,000-pound bunker-busting bombs, but intelligence officials later concluded that Saddam had been in an adjacent house that wasn't hit. The bold attempt to "decapitate" the regime failed.

In the immediate aftermath, the Iraqis began to blow up oil wells in the southern fields near Rumeila. Seeing this, Franks ordered the attack to begin immediately, a day ahead of schedule.

By March 21, the "shock and awe" air campaign was in full swing, and British forces were moving on the Shiite Muslim city of Basra, with a population of more than a million. When the British were attacked by Iraqi irregulars supported by artillery and mortars, the assumption that southern Iraq would welcome invading coalition troops went out the window.

Another assumption, that the Iraqi Army would surrender in droves, also failed to materialize. The accelerated attack stymied plans to drop leaflets telling the Iraqis how to surrender: Reverse the guns on their tanks, dismount and assemble in a square some distance from their weapons. So instead of surrendering, Iraqi soldiers took off their uniforms and boots, got out of their tanks, threw away their weapons and started walking home.

Northern Iraq posed a special problem. The plan called for the 4th Infantry Division, the U.S. Army's most modern tank outfit, to open a northern front from Turkey. By March 22, however, the Bush administration abandoned its efforts to arrange passage. Instead, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was ordered to parachute into a Kurdish-held airstrip in the north on March 26.

The 3rd Infantry pressed northward toward Baghdad from Kuwait, bypassing the southern cities of Nasiriyah and Samawah.

The Marines couldn't avoid Nasiriyah. There were two crucial bridges across the Euphrates River and the Saddam Canal, which ran along the edge of the city. The Marines seized the bridges March 25 after four days of fighting, but the battle in Nasiriyah was just beginning.

U.S. supply convoys ran a gantlet of fire from Saddam Fedayeen guerrillas, Baath Party thugs and foreign Arab volunteers; suicide bombers, guerrillas manning machine guns in the backs of pickup trucks and even buses full of armed volunteers charged. Few of them survived.

An Army convoy of Patriot missile maintenance troops from Fort Bliss, Texas, made a wrong turn and drove into an ambush. In all, 36 Americans were killed in Nasiriyah and eight were taken prisoner.

The American supply lines stretched for more than 300 largely unguarded miles, and at times the flow of fuel, ammunition and food slowed to a crawl. Some Marine units got down to one meal per person per day. Some vehicles ran out of fuel. Franks ordered elements of the Army's 82nd and 101st airborne divisions to clear the route.

On March 24, a sandstorm grounded coalition warplanes and slowed or stopped the ground forces. Troops rode out two miserable days before they could resume the attack.

When the skies cleared, the air attacks resumed. The Republican Guard's T-72 tanks, dug in hull down in fixed positions, were easy pickings for A-10 Warthogs and other fighters and bombers loaded with precision-guided bombs.

The Republican Guard either never came out to fight or didn't survive long enough to fight, and the 3rd Infantry blew through the Karbala Gap, a 2-mile-wide stretch of terrain between the city of Karbala and a nearby reservoir. The Army's road to Baghdad lay open.

The Marines bypassed the heavily defended city of Kut and crossed the Tigris River on April 2, putting Baghdad in their sights, as well.

The Army's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles fought their way into Saddam International Airport, 12 miles from downtown Baghdad, on April 3. The end was in sight.

Franks' plan didn't call for taking Baghdad immediately. But his commanders on the ground saw an opportunity. On April 7, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the 3rd Infantry's commander, called his boss, Lt. Gen. Scott Wallace, the V Corps commander, and told him he thought his 2nd Brigade could go downtown and stay there. He told Wallace the intersections had been secured and convoys could keep the Americans resupplied. Wallace told him to go for it.

The next day, Saddam's government and military evaporated. Marines pushed into Fardos Square and used an M-88 tank repair vehicle to help pull down a statue of Saddam.

Just over 150 American and British soldiers died, and another 500-plus suffered wounds in this information age blitzkreig. We may never know how many thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians perished.

And we'll soon find out if the high-tech force that was big enough to win the war is also big enough to keep the uneasy peace that's settling over Iraq.


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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030418 USIRAQ war chrono