View Full Version : 21 days that shook the world

04-12-03, 09:29 PM
Sun 13 Apr 2003

Ian Mather

FOR a relatively small US-British force to seize a country the size of France, including its capital, in just three weeks, while suffering only 125 deaths through combat and accidents is not just an epic military success. It is hard to believe.

For it has been accomplished in defiance of one of the basic rules of war: to guarantee a successful attack you need three times as many troops as the defenders. The Iraqi armed forces numbered 400,000, the Allies just over 100,000 on the ground in Iraq.

There were times when it seemed to many pundits like military madness. When the American line of supply reached over 200 miles from Kuwait towards Baghdad, one critic on the American Right, William Lind, of the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington, said the campaign “looks like a balloon on a string, with a single army division deep in Iraq and a slender thread of a supply line connecting it to its food, water, fuel, and ammunition. No classical strategist can see the picture without his hair standing on end.”

But, in the end, it was the doomsters who were routed along with the Iraqis. The more hysterical naysayers even predicted Armageddon, with the Iraqis unleashing poison gas and germs and President George W Bush responding by ordering nuclear strikes. It did not happen. There were dire warnings of an ecological disaster and world oil prices through the roof as the Iraqis set fire to the oil fields. That did not happen either. The world braced itself for missile attacks on Israel, leading to war engulfing the entire Middle East. The missiles never arrived.

Even if things go wrong from now on, as well they might since the aftermath was always going to be at least as difficult as the war itself, the Iraqi campaign will be studied as a classic.Yet it did not go according to plan. It started with a missed opportunity equivalent to an open goal, and later on there were some very wobbly moments.

It began 24 hours before it should have done. The CIA gained information from an “impeccable” source, probably an agent on the ground, that Saddam and his sons were in a Baghdad building. Washington said it was a “rare window of opportunity” and, shortly afterwards, some 40 Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Gulf and Red Sea, accompanied by precision-guided bombs dropped from F-117 Stealth fighters, destroyed facilities believed to contain Iraqi military leaders.

A pattern that was to become all too familiar quickly emerged. First, reports were that Saddam had been killed. Then it was said that “senior Iraqi officials” had been killed, or maybe wounded. Finally it was revealed that the wily Iraqi leader had escaped “by a few minutes”.

Saddam’s survival was highly unwelcome. The US and Britain had hoped that by removing the Iraqi dictator and his leading henchmen at one fell swoop they would cause the regime to implode. The chance of winning the war without more shots being fired in anger had gone.

So British and American land forces poured into Iraq from their staging points in Kuwait as Allied air forces unleashed “shock and awe” from the air against “leadership targets”, such as palaces, military headquarters and command and control centres. The aim of the air war was to destroy the leadership while trying to persuade the Iraqis that this was not a war against them and entice them into rising up and overthrowing the regime.

This, too, did not work. The Iraqi people remembered well the Gulf War in 1991, when the Allies who had liberated Kuwait urged them to rise against Saddam, only to stand by while they were brutally massacred by Saddam’s forces.

Instead, there were two surprise developments, one good and one bad. The good surprise was that the coalition forces were able to seize the southern Iraqi oil fields virtually intact. The Iraqis managed to set only a handful on fire. Already, all but two have been repaired by UK-US-Kuwaiti firefighting teams. The financial benefits for the future reconstruction of the country are incalculable.

The bad news was that the Iraqi armed forces did not surrender in their thousands as they had done in 1991. It had been hoped that they might even surrender in complete units led by their officers. They could then have been turned into a police force to keep law and order among their own people in areas taken by the coalition forces. The absence of any back-up plan for law and order in the immediate aftermath of the fighting is proving to be a big weakness in the Allied war plan.

Even so, the Americans set off at a cracking pace northwards towards Baghdad. The British 1st Armoured Division headed towards Basra. The division was part of a 45,000-strong British force – including almost a quarter of the British Army, a Naval task force led by the Ark Royal and more than 100 aircraft – that was to concentrate mostly on the south of Iraq.

The US 3rd Division, moving up the west bank of the Euphrates, travelled 250 miles to within 100 miles of Baghdad. The US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force peeled off across the Tigris on a more easterly route towards the Iraqi capital. Pockets of resistance were bypassed to be dealt with later.

Northern Iraq, where the US had been deprived of a Turkish corridor, remained a sideshow for the time being. Caution was the keyword here. Everything possible was being done to avoid provoking Turkey to intervene to stop the Kurds from occupying the northern oil fields. American special forces, mixing with Kurdish peshmergas, attacked Iraqi positions in the north and made modest gains. The US 4th Infantry Division, which had been earmarked for the northern front, was obliged to sail away from Turkey and take the long way round to Kuwait via the Suez Canal.

Away from the TV cameras, US and British special forces secured key airfields in western Iraq and searched for so-called Scud boxes: areas from which the Iraqis might launch Scud missiles at Israel. But most attention was focused on the thrust north towards Baghdad. At first things went smoothly. American commanders reported that Iraqi units were cut off as a result of the bombing campaign and were no longer fighting as a coherent force. Then, as the war reached the end of Week Two, the questions came crowding in.

more: http://www.scotlandonsunday.com/weekinreview.cfm?id=431832003