Middle East

Baghdad: Outside in and inside out
By Marc Erikson

As at this writing (12:00 GMT, 16:00 Baghdad time, April 3), elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division are within reach of Baghdad's Saddam Hussein International Airport southwest of the city and elements of the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force have closed to within 10 miles of Baghdad from the east. The US Central Command in Doha, Qatar, reports that US Special Forces (and, one assumes, Central Intelligence Agency paramilitaries) have seized critical command and control facilities inside Baghdad.

On that information, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "guess" at the outset of the war that Baghdad will fall "from the inside out" no longer looks far-fetched. Is Saddam still in Baghdad? Is he still in control? This will become apparent within days if not hours. He may have retreated to his and his clan's hometown of Tikrit, defended by two Republican Guard divisions. If so, might Baghdad fall without the feared in-city resistance of the vaunted Special Republican Guard, Saddam martyrs (Fedayeen Saddam), and sundry Arab suicide commandos? It's too early to tell. Coalition forces will pick their time for and approach to the final assault on the Iraqi capital on the basis of all available intelligence information and - if necessary - bide their time. "Victory is near," said a taped message by Saddam aired on Iraqi TV on Wednesday night. He may be right, but he could have gotten the sides wrong.

How did the coalition forces get so far so fast, considering that as late as Monday they appeared to be stalled in their advance north, and questioning of the war plan ruled the day? A bit of military history will help to explain it, as will some necessary corrections to the view of coalition forces leader General Tommy Franks as an unimaginative general officer.

The battle of France, May 1940
The "phoney war", as it was called prior to the German attack in the west, came to an end on May 10, 1940. The French had it all figured out. The had built the Maginot Line after World War I to protect their central front. Its northern-most point was near the town of Montmedy, at the edge of the impenetrable Ardennes Forest. Further north, they had placed their 1st and 9th armies to guard against a World War I-style German flanking action (the "Schlieffen Plan") through Belgium. Their tank forces outnumbered those of the Germans nearly two to one. Their "methodical battle" plan called for full-scale readiness within four days of the outset of hostilities. All that, thought German tank general Heinz Guderian, presented some interesting opportunities. With 1,800 tanks he advanced on the Ardennes, and within three days had cut through to cross the Meuse river at Sedan, then wheeled right and left to trap the French armies in Belgium and attack the Maginot line from the rear. Unfortunately, the French Maginot Line guns were emplaced in such a fashion that they could not fire south. At the Maginot Line and south of the Ardennes, Guderian's XIX PZ Corps (19th tank corps) captured scores of French staff officers who were still in day three (of four) of their "methodical battle" plan. In effect, the war in the west was over in three days - though it took another month and a few handfuls of German casualties until France surrendered on June 22, 1940.

General Franks' "phoney pause"
After advancing some 200 miles out of Kuwait in 36 hours, Central Command slowed the coalition forces' progress north for a week. The New York Times and other knowledgeable newspapers and sources credited the Fedayeen Saddam and other Iraqi irregulars with causing the slowdown. Franks' (and Rumsfeld's) war plan came under fierce attack from talking heads on TV - mostly retired colonels of whom it should have been asked why they never made general's grade. It was no forced pause. It was a time to prepare the battlefield around Baghdad with heavy air power and to await the arrival of the US 4th Infantry - the US Army's finest - at Kuwait for backup if needed.

The offensive on Baghdad started on Tuesday. The 3rd ID resumed its push north, west of the Euphrates, to Karbala. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) pushed north between the Euphrates and Tigris. They would meet the Republican Guard divisions head on, said the talking heads (with French training?). They did no such thing, of course. Simultaneously, on Tuesday night, the 3rd ID turned East and crossed the Euphrates near Karbala, the I MEF turned east and crossed the Tigris after destroying the Guards' Baghdad division at al-Kut in less than 24 hours; meanwhile, Guderian-style, but with Apache helicopters rather than tanks, the 101st Airborne cut across the Euphrates at Hindiya and split Republican Guard forces to the south and north of it.

Franks, the University of Texas drop-out and "muddy boots" soldier who never made it to West Point, has carried out a coordinated wheeling east maneuver about which military historians will write for years to come. During the Gulf War in 1991, he was ADC (assistant division commander -maneuver) of the US 1st Cavalry that confronted Republican Guards north of the Kuwait desert. He appreciates their fighting strength; he wasn't impressed with their tactical maneuvering skills. He and his staff officers have put such insights to use.

The "pause" was a pause. Backup by the US 4th ID was reasonably regarded as critical by Franks, who is no cowboy, but a meticulous, careful and patient planner. It was also a ruse, preparing for the wheel east, driving through Iraqi positions from the flank. This has brought US forces to the immediate outskirts of Baghdad in 48 hours - a move that "informed" French military observers writing in Le Monde (Monday) estimated might take another month of fighting. The French, it seems, are a bit hard at learning.

What next? Inside out, says Central Command. This could have several meanings. US Special Forces fighting outwards. US paratroopers landing inside fighting out. Iraqi elements changing sides and joining US troops in Baghdad. If it comes off, this campaign may well be over in days rather than weeks. Franks will not speak about it. He shuns big talk. Some time back, he told a press conference about the first book he ever read: "It was a book about Julius Caesar. I remember parts of it. The book said Julius Caesar was a general. He made long speeches. They killed him."

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Apr 4, 2003

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