Baghdad outskirts, 5 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Dozens of American tanks conducted a bold raid through central Baghdad today, probing the defenses within the city and calling in air strikes against a large concentration of Iraqi troops and vehicles.
Major Joffery Watson, a U.S. military intelligence officer, told RFE/RL that today's so-called "Thunder run" raid exposed what he called a "lack of will to fight" on the part of Iraq's elite Republican Guard, as well as the destruction of much of the command infrastructure needed for Saddam Husseins's regime to put up a strong organized defense of the city.
Watson said it appears that Hussein's regime is within days, rather than weeks, of collapsing.
Major Watson is the intelligence officer for the U.S. Army's Third Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team -- the unit that conducted today's raid through central Baghdad.
Several dozens U.S. tanks and Bradley troop carriers drove into the Iraqi capital from the U.S. lines on the south side of the city along Highway 8 -- which passes through Baghdad along the west side of the Tigris River.
When the U.S. armor reached Republican Guard defenses that Hussein had called a "ring of steel," they found the abandoned wreckage of 10 T-72 tanks -- the strongest armor in Iraq's arsenal -- destroyed by the intense U.S. air strikes on the capital during the past two weeks.
There was little initial resistance to the American advance, which stuck to Highway 8 rather than fanning out into Baghdad's narrow side streets.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wesley, the executive officer of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, described the Iraqi resistance as "a lot of small arms fire with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade [RPG] launchers." But the attack stalled for about one hour when the engine in one of the U.S. Abrams tank overheated and caught fire.
Wesley said that gave the remnants of the Republican Guard time to muster a series of RPG attacks on the American armored column.
It was then that a U.S. Bradley troops carrier was struck by an Iraqi RPG -- injuring three of its crew members -- who were taken from the battle by a Blackhawk helicopter.
A "Thunder Run" raid like the one seen today in Baghdad is a tank battle tactic developed by the U.S. Army during the Korean War in the 1950s.
The tactic is usually deployed when the frontlines in a war have become static and American infantry movements are at a standstill.
In a "Thunder Run," tanks advance deep behind enemy lines to strike at enemy base camps, supply depots, and other logistics.
Captain Sherman Powell of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team told RFE/RL that the maneuver is considered to be very risky because the enemy may cut off the advancing tanks from behind and surround them.
But Major Watson said today's "Thunder Run" was successful because it forced elements of the Republican Guard in Baghdad to reveal their positions.
Major Watson said a precise assessment of Iraqi losses due to U.S. tank fire and close air support from Alpha-10 attack planes was still being compiled. But he said according to initial reports, a high-ranking general in Hussein's Special Republican Guard surrendered. Major Watson concludes that Baghdad appears to be lightly defended -- mostly by troops using a mix of civilian pickup trucks and military vehicles. His assessment that the defenders of Baghdad have little will to fight is based on the light resistance seen today, as well as a convoy of military and civilian vehicles carrying troops that were seen fleeing the U.S. advance today.
Elsewhere in the 2nd Brigade Combat Teams operations, U.S. tanks destroyed the headquarters of the Republican Guard's Medina Division southeast of Baghdad near the town of Al-Suwayran.
U.S. forces also have been conducting what Lieutenant Colonel Wesley called "mopping-up operations" to the south of Baghdad where thousands of Iraqi soldiers have been trapped by a two-pronged pincer movement involving the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division on the western flank and the First Marine's Expeditionary Force further east.
Major Watson said a conservative estimate of Iraqi losses to the south of Baghdad today includes 11 T-72 tanks, 12 air defense artillery pieces, 20 ground artillery pieces, one Russian-built BMP armored troop carrier and four trucks.
The U.S. Marines have advanced to a tactical assembly area to the east of Baghdad and have been shelling Iraqi defenses on that side of the city since yesterday.
Today U.S. troops also have been consolidating their control over Baghdad's International Airport on the southwestern edge of the city -- effectively tightening their grip around the southern half of the capital.
Only the roads leading out of Baghdad from the city's northern half remain under the control of Iraqi officials today.
What is left of Republican Guards defenses in and around Baghdad are elements of the Hammurabi Division to the west and remnants of the Al-Nida Division to the east.
Major Watson said U.S. military intelligence reports suggest the Adnan Division of the Republican Guard has been breaking up during the last four days. (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 filed this report at around 1300 Prague time today.)