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On Point

Squeezing Baghdad

by Austin Bay
March 25, 2003

At the moment, it looks as if it will be a difficult clinch.

After bridging the Euphrates River, the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is approaching Baghdad from the southwest. Other allied forces are poised to thread their way up the Tigris valley. These are the two strong ground arms of the squeeze.

Operations in western Iraq to suppress Scud launch sites (the Scud box) and occupy the area's airbases appear to be a rather silent success.

Don't underestimate the importance of western Iraq. The large bases can land warplanes and transport aircraft. These bases not only help curb SCUD shots at Israel -- a vital strategic objective and one that denies Saddam's regime the ability to expand the war -- they serve as concrete "trampolines" for further operations. Units like the helicopter-borne 101st Airborne Division can use the bases to "bounce" to the north or go east to Baghdad and aid the squeeze.

The map demonstrates why the Baghdad region is tricky. Population areas -- more civilians -- always require more care. Twists in the river and canals mean more bridging operations. Only opposed amphibious landings from the sea and parachute drops in hostile territory are more risky that opposed river crossings. U.S. precision weapons do lower the risk since they can quickly suppress resistance.

One risk the United States has assumed (and it is in part the result of an attempt to minimize the loss of Iraqi civilian and military lives) is "near rear area attacks" by "stay behind" hard core Republican Guards or terror squads. The fanatics slip in among bypassed Iraqi Army personnel who have ceased fighting. The fanatics then attack follow-on units or choke-points like bridges. The Sunday Iraqi attack on a U.S. supply convoy was probably conducted by such a force.

"Opposed" is, of course, the tough word. While intense firefights have occurred, the general impression remains that small packets of Iraqi troops are fighting these short battles -- company-sized (150 troops) or less.

The "fog of war," however, settles thick and tight, and estimates are just that -- guesses drawn from experience and fleeting reports. TV offers tiny windows, porthole views of a dangerous ocean storm. Some coverage has been extraordinary, and the context provided by analysts excellent. History, however, will prove many of these portholes to be potholes.

When 3rd Squadron 7th Cavalry, 3rd Infantry Division's armored reconnaissance unit, received a volley of artillery rounds, it became a major cable TV report. A few shells isn't heavy resistance, it's harassment -- dangerous, but expected. The cav WANTS to identify points of enemy resistance. The TV anchor and the reporter embedded with the 3/7th Cav were struck by the troopers ability to disperse in 20 seconds and continue their mission.

Excited chatter and lack of context makes such incidents appear as much more than they are. As a former cav trooper, I assure you recon trains to probe the enemy, then scoot and slip around them while other division and Air Force weapons attack the enemy targets.

Central Command speaks of allied forces "engaging emerging targets." For the first few days of the offensive in the main, this meant regime targets in Baghdad attacked by air. The Republican Guards around Baghdad are now the emerging targets, for air and other long-range fires.

They will have their chance to surrender. Pray that they do. If they don't, look for the big squeeze to become a crunch. The crunch will be a "synchronized" air and ground attack to destroy them.

At that point, Saddam's strategy will become most evident. The Baath fascist regime holds Baghdad as a huge urban hostage, a hostage in the television lens. The Iraqi regime's fevered information war will get hotter, the televised clips nastier. There are already reports of fascist fanatics attacking in civilian vehicles and in civilian clothes. These attacks are not only intended to enrage allied troops (and perhaps provoke an attack on civilians) but are designed to frighten Iraqi civilians. They bloodily remind the populace that the hand of Saddam hasn't quite faded.

Though the Marines report delight among liberated Iraqis around Basra, don't look for street dancing until the Arabic Al Jazeera TV pronounces the Baath regime dead and buried.

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