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Iraq War Plans: Report from Kuwait

March 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Michael, welcome. You wrote this morning that the U.S… the coalition is going to… is shifting its land strategy to deal with these attacks now from the Fedayeen and all the irregulars that are coming up behind the units moving to Baghdad. How is the new strategy going to work?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, when the war started, the United States had a very clear strategy for how to do this. Their plan was to bypass Basra, bypass an Nasiriyah, and head straight toward Baghdad and prepare for a battle with the Republican Guard on the outskirts of the city. But that strategy was turned on its head because, as they like to say in the U.S. Military, the enemy has a vote. And what the Iraqis did was they inserted lots of paramilitary forces in the South. Now what has happened is a decision has been made that the army and the marines and the British, also, have to take on the forces in the South, clear them out of the cities before they attend to the battle of Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: So how are they actually going to go after the forces? Are they waiting for them on the road? Are they going to follow them, go after them in the readouts? Do they know where they hole up when they aren’t on the road attacking U.S. forces?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, this is happening as we speak, and part of what this battle is about is the forces are coming after us. So they’re not always that difficult to find. In fact, even tonight Iraq is sending down more of these paramilitary units from Baghdad to join the fray. But basically what has happened is these units, Fedayeen, Ba’ath Party hardcore elements, security organization officials, they’ve taken up residence in some of the southern cities. The best defense is a good offense and now the American forces are beginning to go after them.

MARGARET WARNER: So are these the forces that are already on their way up to the front at Baghdad or forces positioned there being turned around and sent back or are they leaving units behind as they continue to advance? What is it doing to the advance on Baghdad?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, thanks to Don Rumsfeld there are not that many forces around here. There’s – it’s a very capable force that has been deployed in the region of the fifth corps, the army, and the first marine expeditionary force, but it’s not the overwhelming force that Colin Powell envisioned in the last Gulf War. So there are just so many troops to do so many things. They were preparing pretty much to take on the Republican Guard in Baghdad, but then they discovered they had this problem in the rear which just couldn’t go unattended for both reasons, to help out the people in the cities and to protect their supply line. So what’s happening now is they are really preparing for urban combat in these cities in the south. And what does that mean? It means calling in air strikes, pretty much like was done in Afghanistan with spotters and Special Forces. It means using light infantry troops, potentially to go into the cities and clear out these kind of militias when they find them. It means mechanized units.

There was a battle just last night in which somewhere on the order of four to five hundred Iraqis were killed by an element of the third infantry division. It means all of these things. What they don’t want to do is fight block-to-block, house-to- house, inside the southern cities. They don’t want to it to be a mini-Mesopotamian Stalingrad. What they do want to do is target what the key power centers are, where these people are, and go then after them selectively. I think we’re seeing a good example of this in Basra right now with the British forces, who yesterday called in an air strike on the Ba’ath Party headquarters with an American satellite guided bomb, and are now beginning to probe and make their way inside the city itself.

MARGARET WARNER: What kind of a delay is this going to mean for the assault on Baghdad?

MICHAEL GORDON: I don’t think we’re talking about an indefinite delay but I think delay has a certain advantage in this sense: Every day they take, every extra day is another day that the air force can work over the Republican Guard. The Medina, al Midal, al Marabi, the three divisions around Baghdad. I mean, there haven’t been that many air strikes on the Republican Guard. This isn’t like desert storm where there are 39 days of air attacks before the ground war began. This have, you know, there have been maybe a couple of days of sustained air attacks on the Republican Guard. So that’s an advantage of waiting.

The other advantage is they can move all their logistics stuff, which is still a formidable undertaking, and more forces can arrive. There are still forces coming here. The second armored cavalry regiment, the fourth infantry division that was supposed to be in Turkey. I mean, waiting a week, in my view, is not a tragedy. In fact, it could be an advantage because you could be better prepared for what could be a difficult fight in Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there talk among the commanders you’ve talked to about actually waiting until one of extra heavy divisions gets there, say the fourth? And if so, how quickly are you hearing they could be there and ready for action?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I don’t think they are thinking of waiting till more forces come. I think they are… they’re locked into a concept which is known as a “rolling start,” where you begin fighting even as forces are arriving. It may not be the best way of doing things, but it’s the way that this war seems to be organized. You know, I think they are prepared to fight with the forces at hand, but I also think that each week there are more forces on hand, due to the fact that there have been forces that the Pentagon has dispatched to the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Gordon, thank you.

MICHAEL GORDON: Thank you.