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Iraq: On Outskirts Of Baghdad, U.S. Commanders Reflect On Battlefield Successes

RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz is embedded with the tactical operations center of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Synovitz reports that U.S. military commanders say the past two weeks have seen successful combat operations to "shape" the battlefield, enabling troops to reach the outskirts of the capital, Baghdad, and destroy much of the country's defenses along the way.

On the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq; 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Standing on the outskirts of Baghdad this morning, watching a shroud of black smoke drifting over the city, U.S. Army Major Joffery Watson shook his head and laughed when asked about Western media reports during the last week, saying that the U.S. ground war in Iraq has been stalled.

From the perspective of U.S. military officials on the battlefield, nothing could be further from the truth. They say that's because what has really been going on across Iraq during the past two weeks have been successful military operations to "shape" the battlefield in a way that would allow U.S. forces to make a rapid, two-pronged advance on the Iraqi capital.

Watson said reports by Western media comparing the rapid U.S.-led advance during the 1991 ground war with the current situation overlook a key point. The 1991 Gulf War began with five weeks of air strikes before ground troops made their first attacks. But in the current war, the air and ground campaigns were launched at almost the same time to prevent Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from implementing a scorched-earth policy and destroying Iraq's oil fields and causing widespread environmental damage.

Thus, while press reports spoke of U.S. troops being "held up" in southern Iraq, Watson says the reality was that U.S. ground troops had advanced as far as they could without putting the main body of U.S. troops in range of Iraqi attacks. The objective was to provide accurate targeting information for U.S. air strikes against positions of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

This correspondent watched a series of military feints to the south of Baghdad, which military planners said were designed to draw Iraqi forces away from the capital and out into the open desert and highways, where they could easily be targeted by U.S. air and artillery strikes.

These so-called feints at Samawah, Najaf, and Hindiyah were seized on by the Iraqi Information Ministry as instances where Iraqi forces had boldly held off U.S. advances. Similar reports appeared in some Western media.

But military officials RFE/RL spoke with say it is now clear that the U.S. plan worked perfectly -- drawing much of the elite Republican Guard to defend positions along the main highways following the Euphrates River through the center of the country and further south to Basra.

Early on the morning of 1 April, the commander of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team stared intensely at a battle map in a strategic planning tent near U.S. front-line positions.

Colonel David Perkins was studying colored rectangles on the map, which represented forces under his command. The rectangles were massed around the city of Karbala, about 80 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Thick black lines traced the routes through the desert to the north and across agricultural fields and canals closer to Baghdad that his forces would take -- effectively bypassing Iraq's main highways and the biggest part of Iraq's southern defenses in a western flanking movement.

Less than 48 hours later, the colonel's planning tent was set up on the outskirts of Baghdad.

At the same time, U.S. Marines were advancing farther east. Once the American forces had seized strategic bridges across the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the two-pronged pincer movement closed in near Baghdad. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers who had been deployed further south because of the probing feints of the American forces during the past two weeks suddenly found they had been cut off from Baghdad and had no possibility to retreat and join up with Republican Guards defending the capital.

In the words of Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, the executive officer of the 2nd Brigade, Iraqi forces trapped in the south died a "quick and desperate" death.

Major Watson told RFE/RL that initial assessments of the battle damage caused by the 2nd Brigade accounted for the destruction of 28 Soviet-built T-72 Iraqi tanks -- the most powerful armor in Saddam's arsenal.

A dozen smaller tanks and armored troop carriers also were destroyed by the 2nd Brigade, along with 24 Iraqi air-defense artillery pieces, many of them around Saddam International Airport. By dawn today, the airport, at the gateway to Baghdad, was under the control of U.S. forces.

Watson said some 3,000 to 4,000 Iraqi troops -- including two tank battalions, two mechanized infantry battalions and two light infantry battalions -- were killed by combined U.S. air and ground attacks. The exact number of Iraqi casualties at the airport is not immediately available.

Watson also said the Medina Division of the Republican Guard has been reduced to about 35 percent of its original strength, though reports suggest that the elite division was being reinforced today.

Still, the battle for Baghdad continues.

Officials say the goal of U.S. forces is to set the conditions for regime change in Iraq. The destruction of much of Saddam's Republican Guard is a major step toward achieving that goal. Watson said that as long as Saddam remains in power, the war will continue.

What remains unclear at this point is whether the annihilation of much of the Republican Guard will lead to a rebellion or a palace coup in Baghdad, or if U.S. troops will have to enter the capital itself and fight from house to house in order to root out the leaders of the Iraqi regime.