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03-12-06, 11:54 AM
U.S. generals divided as war began
By Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor The New York Times
SUNDAY, MARCH 12, 2006

The Iraq war was barely a week old when General Tommy Franks threatened to fire the U.S. Army's field commander.

From the first day of the invasion, in March 2003, American forces had tangled with thousands of Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. General William Wallace, who was leading the Army's 5th Corps toward Baghdad, had told two reporters that his soldiers needed to delay their advance on the Iraqi capital to suppress the Fedayeen threat in the rear.

Soon after, Franks phoned Lieutenant General David McKiernan, the head of allied land forces, to warn that he might relieve Wallace.

The firing was averted after McKiernan flew to meet Franks. But the episode revealed the deep disagreements within the U.S. high command about the Iraqi military threat and what would be required to defeat it.

The dispute, related by senior military officers and their aides in interviews, had lasting consequences. The unexpected tenacity of the Fedayeen in the battles for Nasiriya, Samawa, Najaf and other towns on the road to Baghdad was an early indication that the adversary was not merely Saddam Hussein's vaunted Republican Guard.

The paramilitary Fedayeen were numerous, well-armed, dispersed throughout the country, and seemingly determined to fight to the death. But while many officers in the field assessed the Fedayeen as a dogged foe, Franks and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saw them as little more than a speed bump on the way to Baghdad.

Three years later, Iraq has yet to be subdued. While the outcome of the drive to Baghdad is clear, how some of the key decisions in the war were made and some significant episodes are largely unknown.

Among them: A U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer warned after the bloody battle at Nasiriya, the first major fight of the war, that the Fedayeen would continue to mount attacks after the fall of Baghdad since many of the enemy fighters were being bypassed in the race to the capital.

In an extraordinary improvisation, Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader who was a Pentagon favorite, was flown to southern Iraq with hundreds of his fighters as Franks's command sought to put an "Iraqi face" on the invasion. The plan was set in motion without the knowledge of top administration officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and George Tenet, the CIA director.

Instead of sending additional troops to stabilize the country after the fall of Baghdad, Rumsfeld and Franks canceled the deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division. McKiernan was unhappy with the decision, which was made at a time when ground forces were needed to deal with the chaos in Iraq.

This account of decision-making inside the U.S. command is based on interviews with dozens of military officers and government officials. Some asked to remain unnamed because they were speaking about sensitive internal deliberations that they were not authorized to discuss publicly.

As American-led forces prepared to invade Iraq, U.S. intelligence was not projecting a major fight in southern Iraq. CIA officials told U.S. commanders that anti-Saddam tribes might secure a vital Euphrates River bridge and provide other support. Tough resistance was not expected until army and marine troops began to close in on Baghdad.

Almost from the start, however, the troops found themselves fighting the Fedayeen and Baath Party paramilitary forces. The Fedayeen was formed in the mid-1990's to suppress any Shiite revolts. Equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms, they wore civilian dress and were positioned in southern Iraq. The first American to die in combat was shot by a paramilitary fighter.

After Nasiriya, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Apodaca, a marine intelligence officer, drafted a classified message concluding that the Fedayeen would continue to be a threat. Many had sought sanctuary in small towns that were bypassed in the rush to Baghdad.

The colonel compared the Fedayeen to insurgencies in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Colombia and warned that unless U.S. soldiers went after them in force, the enemy would continue their attacks after Baghdad fell, hampering efforts to stabilize Iraq.

At the land war headquarters, there was growing concern about the Fedayeen as well. On March 28, McKiernan flew to the Jaliba airfield to huddle with his army and marine commanders. Wallace reported that his troops had managed to contain the Iraqi paramilitary forces but that the American hold on them was tenuous.

Fedayeen were moving between the towns of Samawa and Najaf. "I am not sure how many of the knuckleheads there are," he said, according to notes taken by a military aide.

Lieutenant General James Conway, the top marine field commander, was also impressed by the fighters' tenacity. The towering former football player said the resistance was tougher than he had anticipated; bypassed enemy units were attacking U.S. supply lines.

McKiernan concluded that the U.S. faced two "centers of gravity": the Republican Guard, concentrated near Baghdad, and the Fedayeen. He decided to suspend the march to the capital for several days while continuing airstrikes and engaging the Fedayeen.

Only then, he figured, would conditions be right for the final assault into Baghdad to remove Saddam from power.

When he returned to his headquarters in Kuwait, though, he learned of the furor over comments by Wallace to the press.

"The enemy we're fighting is a bit different than the one we war-gamed against, because of these paramilitary forces," Wallace had said to The New York Times and The Washington Post. "We knew they were here, but we did not know how they would fight."

Asked whether the fighting increased the chances of a longer war than forecast by some military planners, he responded, "It's beginning to look that way."

To Franks, those remarks apparently were tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in his war plan. It relied on speed, and he had told Rumsfeld that his forces would take Baghdad in just a few weeks.

In Washington, Wallace's comments were seized on by critics as evidence that Rumsfeld had not sent enough troops.

More than a year earlier, he had ridiculed the initial war plan that called for at least 380,000 troops and had pushed the military's Central Command to use fewer soldiers and deploy them more quickly.

At a Pentagon news conference, the defense secretary denied that he had any role in shaping the war plan.

"It was not my plan," he said. "It was General Franks's plan, and it was a plan that evolved over a sustained period of time."

Privately, Rumsfeld hinted at his impatience with his generals. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker and a Rumsfeld adviser, forwarded a supportive memo from Colonel Doug Macgregor, who had long assailed the army leadership as risk averse. In a blistering attack, Macgregor denounced the decision to suspend the advance. Replying to Gingrich, the secretary wrote: "Thanks for the Macgregor piece. Nobody up here is thinking like this."

McKiernan, for his part, was stunned by the threat to fire Wallace. "Talk about unhinging ourselves," he told Lieutenant General John Abizaid, Franks's deputy.

At Franks's headquarters in Qatar the next day, McKiernan made the case against removing Wallace. Retired General Gary Luck, an adviser to Franks, said Wallace was not one to shrink from a fight. Wallace survived, but the strategy debate was far from over.

Hoping the resistance would fade if the invasion had an Iraqi face, Franks's command turned to an unlikely ally.

Chalabi, who had been long been pushing for Saddam's ouster and was championed by some Pentagon officials, was based in northern Kurdistan with his fighters. An American colonel, Ted Seel, was assigned as a military liaison.

On March 27, he was asked to call Abizaid's office. The general asked Seel how many fighters Chalabi had and if he would be willing to deploy them.

Chalabi said he could field as many as 1,000, but Seel thought 700 was more accurate. The U.S. Air Force could fly them in to the Tallil air base just south of Nasiriya.

Anxious to reassure the White House that he had an Iraqi ally, Franks told Bush in a videoconference that 1,000 Iraqi freedom fighters would be joining the American-led forces. Frank Miller, the senior National Security Council deputy for defense issues, was taken aback by the plan.

Unlike a small group of Iraq exiles recruited by the Pentagon and trained in Hungary, these fighters had not been screened or trained by the American military.

He approached Tenet of the CIA. Who are these freedom fighters? he asked, according to an official who was present. Tenet said he had no idea.

When the airlift finally started in early April, about 570 fighters were ready. As the C-17s were being loaded, Chalabi wanted to go as well.

Abizaid objected, arguing in an exchange with Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, that the military command should not be taking sides in future Iraqi politics by flying a potential Iraqi leader to southern Iraq, but Wolfowitz did not yield.

Abizaid had solicited Chalabi's fighters, he pointed out, and they did not want to go without their leader, according to officials familiar with the exchange.

When Abizaid awoke the next day, Chalabi was at Tallil. His fighters would never play a meaningful role in the war. They arrived without their arms and were not well supervised by the U.S. Special Forces. But Chalabi, now the deputy prime minister of Iraq, proved to be undeterred. After arriving at Tallil, he drove to Nasiriya and delivered a rousing speech. It was the beginning of his political comeback.

Determined to spur his ground war commanders to renew the push toward Baghdad, Franks flew to McKiernan's headquarters in Kuwait on March 31, where he delivered some harsh criticism.

Only the British and the Special Operations forces had been fighting, he complained, according to several participants in the meeting. Franks said he doubted that the 3rd Infantry Division had had a serious tank engagement and warned of the embarrassment that would follow if they failed.

The resistance around Karbala on the army's route to Baghdad was minor, he said, and easily crushed. He expressed frustration that neither McKiernan nor the marines had forced the destruction of Iraq's 10th and 6th army divisions, units the marines viewed as severely weakened by airstrikes, far from the invasion route and little threat.

(Franks did not respond to repeated requests to discuss his handling of the war or his threat to fire Wallace.)

By April 2, American forces were closing in on the capital. Even before the war, Rumsfeld saw the deployment of U.S. forces more in terms of what was needed to win the war than to secure the peace.

With the tide in America's favor, he began to raise the issue of canceling the deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division's 16,000 soldiers.

Franks eventually went along. Although the general insisted he was not pressured to agree, he later acknowledged that the defense secretary had put the issue on the table.

"Don Rumsfeld did in fact make the decision to off-ramp the 1st Cavalry Division," Franks said in a 2004 interview.

Three years later, with thousands of lives lost in the tumult of Iraq, senior officers say that canceling the division was a major mistake, one that reduced the number of U.S. forces just as the Fedayeen, former soldiers and Arab jihadists were beginning to organize in what would become an insurgency.

Jack Keane, a retired army general who served as the acting chief of staff during the summer of 2003, said: "The Baathist insurgency surprised us, and we had not developed a comprehensive option for dealing with this possibility, one that would have included more military police, civil affairs units, interrogators, interpreters, and Special Operations forces."

He added: "If we had planned for an insurgency, we probably would have deployed the 1st Cavalry Division and it would have assisted greatly with the initial occupation. This was not just an intelligence community failure, but also our failure as senior military leaders."

This article is adapted from "Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq," written by Michael R. Gordon, chief military correspondent of The New York Times, and Bernard E. Trainor, a retired marine lieutenant general and former military correspondent for The New York Times. The book will be published in the United States in March by Pantheon Books. It will be published in Britain by Atlantic Books.