Push to finish the job
By Michael R. Gordon
CAMP DOHA, Kuwait -- American commanders say Iraqi forces are reeling from almost three weeks of air and land attacks, and they are mounting a three-pronged Army assault on Baghdad to try to force a quick end to the war. When the land campaign was first devised, American commanders envisioned a far more deliberate assault.
The attack on Baghdad was to involve forward operating bases on the periphery of the Iraqi capital. Careful probes would determine the whereabouts of the Iraqi leadership. Armed with such intelligence, armored and light infantry movements would strike at their targets and then quickly withdraw. Top commanders cautioned that they intended to be patient and did not plan to rush forces into the heart of a heavily defended city.
But that deliberate plan has been put aside in favor of a more audacious approach, officials say, one that seeks to take advantage of the Iraqi military's heightened vulnerabilities but that also presents risk to American forces.
The senior American commanders plotting the offensive say they have concluded that the Iraqi command and control is frayed and that Saddam Hussein's security forces are unable to mount an effective urban defense. American generals believe that the thunderous air strikes against the Republican Guard outside Baghdad and the rapid Army and Marine advance have caught the government and its defenders off guard.
The final proof of that, American official say, was the meager defense Iraqi paramilitaries were able to mount when the Army's Third Infantry Division tanks and armored personnel carriers drove through the city on Saturday.
So, following a deep-seated principle, the American military is responding to the indications of enemy weakness with more strength. They are sending more troops and more armor into Baghdad from more directions, and they are doing so more quickly than they had anticipated.
This is not an occupation, American officials said today. The military says it has no interest in fanning out through the city, taking control of its diverse ethnic neighborhoods. It has neither the forces nor the desire to control and administer a city of 4.5 million. Instead, officials say, the campaign is an aggressive effort to tear down what is left of the government and overwhelm its defenders by striking at Mr. Hussein's security forces from different sides.
There has been much talk in Washington about the "shock and awe" that might result from an air campaign. This is an attempt to induce shock and awe on the ground, as American armor maneuvers near the former power center of the government and tries to narrow the space where the top officials might be hiding.
This is how the plan was unfolding tonight. Three large task forces from the Third Infantry Division were attacking the city from three directions.
The Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division, which set the stage for tonight's action when it punched its way into the center of the city on Monday, has stayed there. Instead of rushing in and out of the city, the brigade is using Mr. Hussein's former government center as a base to strike out at Iraqi forces and whatever remnants of the Iraqi government it can find.
Forces from the Third Brigade, meanwhile, have maneuvered around to the north of the city and are driving south. The First Brigade is attacking from yet another direction. At the same time, American marines are attacking from the east.
Their attacks are being coordinated with simultaneous attacks within the city by Special Operations forces.
The idea of coordinating attacks by conventional forces with commando missions has been used in the American attacks to secure the cities in southern Iraq and is an outgrowth of the American experience in Afghanistan. The theory is that the combined efforts of Army and Marine forces, American air power and agile Special Operations forces will quickly unhinge the enemy.
"The purpose is to attack the regime," an American official said. "We are not talking about a long-term occupation."
While the American military is vastly superior to the Iraqi forces, the United States forces face some challenges. There is a limited amount of reliable and useful information from American intelligence agents about potential targets in the city. There is the very real risk of allied forces firing on each other in a city that has become an arena for different forces. One such case has already been reported.
There is also the fact that the Iraqi paramilitary forces are operating on their home turf. American commanders have warned their forces about "asymmetric warfare" like suicide bombing attacks that are intended to compensate for the Americans' superiority on the conventional battlefield.
Iraq's forces have taken a beating, but many still continue to resist. The forces still have some rudimentary command and control, officials say, though it is not clear if anyone is in over-all charge of the Iraqi defenses.
The Iraqi forces include the fedayeen paramilitary, which appeared to be arrayed against the marines. Elements of some Republican Guard divisions, including command-and-control units, have also moved into the capital to shield themselves from air attacks and to fight another day. But other forces have been all but wiped out, including Iraq's Third Special Forces Brigade, which made the mistake in recent days of leaving the vicinity of the capital to try to take on the Marines.
The Iraqis still have something of an air defense. Before the attack on Baghdad, they had not shot down any planes. Now, they have downed an A-10, the Air Force aircraft that specializes in close air support of friendly troops.
To facilitate the attack, American military planners have divided up the city into sectors and sought to identify which ones are occupied by Mr. Hussein, if he survived the airstrike on Monday that was intended to kill him, his sons and his supporters.
The relentless high-tempo, aggressive American offensive in Baghdad contrasts with the approach the British used in Basra.
Drawing on their experience in urban operations in Northern Ireland, the British took a far more deliberate approach. Their offensive in Basra took weeks as the British sought to gradually expand their toehold in Basra, forge new allies among the population and cultivate new intelligence contacts.
The approach today is also more aggressive than some commanders initially suggested. Last month, Lt. Gen. William S. Wallace, the head of V Corps, which is spearheading the Army attack in Baghdad, emphasized that American forces would be careful not to rush into Baghdad and would be sent there only after patient consideration.
But now that the operation is happening, it is bigger and faster than expected. General Wallace is in charge of the Army attacks. His new plan calls for hitting the Iraqis with a multidimensional attack and doing so now. The days of probes are gone. The Americans seem to have opted for the full-court press.