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The Iraq War: Military Moves

March 24, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And with me are three colonels, plus one. John Warden was air force deputy director for strategy, doctrine, and war fighting during the 1991 Gulf War, an architect of that war’s air campaign. Sam Gardiner teaches military operations and planning, and is a longtime consultant to the Defense Department. Patrick Lang is a former army Special Forces officer and defense attaché in the Middle East. He was chief Middle East analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Gulf War. Tonight, they are joined by Aziz al-Taee, chairman of the Iraqi American Council. It’s a non-governmental organization that promotes democracy for Iraq. He left the country in 1983. His family still lives in Baghdad.

Col. Lang, we just heard Dexter Filkins talking about the rear guard action in Nasiriyah and we heard John Burns talk about the revived un-decapitated leadership of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Where does that leave us right now with the war plan?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think from the point of view of the command, they’re quite justified in saying that their plan has not been ruined by what has happened. It’s proceeding according to the way they had hoped it would go. But I think they are in fact somewhat surprised by the degree of resistance, I think that’s — probably would not be an exaggeration say that. The way the plan looks to me just now is that with the marines having opened the bridges in Nasiriyah, which are very important for northward movement, we now have a continual stream of troops and supplies going up, as the basic process continues, bringing all the available land power and theater together in front of Baghdad to present a united front against the regime. Once they get there, then we’ll have to see what happens. If there isn’t an army revolt or the government doesn’t fold up or something like that, then a lot is going to depend on the quality and quantity of the air bombardment provided by the air forces on the prepared positions of the Republican Guard.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Warden, let’s talk about that air bombardment specifically as it has to do with Baghdad and the area immediately around the city. Is it enough?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: No. I don’t really think it is. When you think about war that you’ve got a couple different ways to approach it — one is the tactical force on force, the other is the strategic which is more the judo approach. What our strategic objective in this thing obviously need to be is to collapse the regime or to make it appear that it is collapsed on the one hand, and then on the other hand provide some inducement for senior Iraqis, military, government et cetera to join us, to join on our side.

Now, part of how you get at that with aerial bombardment is obviously some direct attacks on the leadership. But if that’s all you do, that’s a single point failure and so far that obviously hasn’t worked. So we now need to expand to think about having an effect on the overall system, which means taking out the television, put yourself in the part of an Iraqi senior Iraqi in Baghdad, you’re seeing Saddam ministers on the television, your telephone works, your electricity is on, life is not all that bad. Those things need to go off so that there is no way for these guys to know whether Saddam is really there. And then on the other hand, rather than just asking the Iraqi units to surrender, we’ve got to give them some positive inducement, let them join us in doing things to get rid of a regime, which we think they like probably as much as we do. If we can win the strategic battle or make more progress on it, that will significantly shorten or maybe obviate the need for this besieging or investing or blockade of Baghdad.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Gardiner, that question was asked today, the question about the communications infrastructure was asked today at the Pentagon and they said – they didn’t say much – they said Gen. Frank’s would decide when to do that. Is this the right time to be doing that?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: I disagree with John. I think that the Republican Guard aren’t stiffened by television. We are now into the fight part. We have lost the shock part. In military history and military operations, shock is a thing that has a limited life value. Generally what you do is you do shock and you follow it up with maneuver operations. It’s clear both the regime and the Republican Guard no longer are shocked. We’re moving into the part of attrition warfare. We’re going to have to kill the Republican Guard. And I think that means taking them on directly and I think that’s what the plan has in mind, and it’s going to have difficulties in it, but we’re going to have to take them on directly.

GWEN IFILL: But that’s talking about Republican Guard, which is right around Baghdad — right now the real problems seem to be happening at Umm Qasr, the port which is still not secure; Nasiriyah, which is still not secure; Basra, which is still not secure. What should they be doing?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, they have to detach sufficient force to deal with all these places because it doesn’t look like the opposition there is going to go away. My belief is – after having watched this for a few days — that in advance of the beginning of the war the regime issued orders for all these stay-behind units to include units of the regular army who we give so little credit most of the time, to take their uniforms off at the first opportunity, but still participate in combat. And marines in Nasiriyah and over on the eastern side all report fighting people who were actually regular army soldiers in civilian clothes. So that’s going to go right on. So you’re going to have this kind of two-front war back in the southern rear area, which has to be kept pacified all the time, and then you’re going to have the main battle force line up against the Republican Guard at Baghdad. And, I mean, it’s all very well to talk about the indirect approach and all this kind of stuff, but when it comes down to it and you’ve got the 1st Hammurabi division, al Nida Armored division and the 2nd Al Medina division facing you, and behind them is Saddam’s government, in the end it’s going to come down to infantrymen and tanks.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Al-Taee, we’re tossing around a lot of terms which to the arrange viewer might not be clear, we talk about the regular army, we talk about the Republican Guard. And today we started hearing about the Fedayeen, which is the inner circle of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists. Could you describe for us what role each of these different parts of the Iraqi air forces play?

AZIZ AL-TAEE: Thank you. Actually, the first is the regular army which is mostly from the regular people who have been oppressed by Saddam. Then you have the Republican Guard who are pretty much the special forces that Saddam uses from his relatives from Tikrit and all the loyalists to him. And then Fedayeen is basically a paramilitary group led by Saddam’s oldest son Uday.

They are pretty much like young people, they want to, they are ready to commit suicide in operations like that. What they’ve been doing lately though, this Fedayeen, they have been knocking on the doors, the report I get Basra and Baghdad, they’ve been knocking on people’s houses trying to get any man, young men and women or even older men and women, anybody 15 and older, they’re giving them AK-47’s, they’re putting them as human shields in front of their Fedayeen with execution squads behind them and they want them to try to attack the American troops.

GWEN IFILL: There’s also been some talk, Mr. Al-Taee, that some of the units who are supposed to have surrendered and melted away in the first few days of this actually kind of turned around and came back the back way, and are coming up behind the troops as they pass. Have you been hearing that as well?

AZIZ AL-TAEE: Yes, I’ve been hearing that. Actually, I got a report that people in Basra are very upset. Actually there is not much trust of the Iraqi people, they are not familiar with the coalition troops, they don’t know what they are, all they listen to is Saddam propaganda and this propaganda is supported by al Jazeera TV and some other Arab satellite channels. What’s happening here is that we need definitely to take the Iraqi — Saddam’s TV out and his radio and communications out, we should establish our own radio and TV and get Iraqi-Americans and Iraqis from all over the world over there, or even from stations anywhere in the world to talk to their people. For example, I would be speaking to a family, and somebody else would be speaking to another family. They are familiar with us, they are not familiar with the coalition forces.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Warden, is it possible that one of the reasons why the United States wants to keep this communications infrastructure intact is because they want to kind of listen in, they want to send their own messages using those air waves?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Yes, and this is always some point of contention between the operational people and the intelligence people, and obviously at some points there is some validity. However, if you put the success or significantly raise the cost of operations merely in the hope that you are going to get some intelligence information, that’s really putting the cart really, really far in front of the horse, and it doesn’t make much sense when you get right down to it.

GWEN IFILL: You agree with that, colonel?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yeah, I’m an intelligence person and I would agree with John that the time is passed at which the information value of listening to what they said is no longer worth the cost you’re paying in allowing Saddam to communicate with all these people and continuing to influence them with his words.

GWEN IFILL: So Col. Gardiner, what do U.S. forces do or coalition British forces do at this point, especially with that rear guard action and also in the northern front, which we don’t get to see through the television cameras, so we don’t hear that much about?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Let me try to prioritize that, Gwen. There’s the red zone battle. In football the red zone is the last 20 yards before the touchdown. Right now that’s around Baghdad. What the United States has got to do is bring up enough combat power to deal with those three levels of Republican Guards. And that’s going to take a while. We’ll probably see sort of a tactical pause while these units move up. You don’t want to attack with one tank; you want to attack with the broad combat powers, as Pat was saying.

So the first thing to do is to move those forces in there. We’ve got later to deal with the northern part of the battle and there’s still a whole Republican Guard division up by the oil area up there. That’s going to have to be dealt with. There is another Republican Guard division down at Kut, which is on the route that the marines are coming, so there really are those three battles that are going to have to be dealt with.

GWEN IFILL: When you say tactical pause, that’s a term that is fraught with meaning from past battles. Define what you mean.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: This is not we’re going to give them a chance to surrender. This is we’ve come up, we’ve closed with, we’ve come close to the Republican Guards, we’re holding them and now we’re going to bring up the rest of the units. As we heard in the report, they’re stretched out all the way back to Kuwait. Those tanks have to get up there, so when they fight, when the battle starts, you do it with a mass formation.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Lang, what to do about the fact that the first big strike against Saddam Hussein so far, if we’re to believe that the tape we saw of him today is current and certainly we believe from listening to John Burns that Tariq Aziz is alive and well — what are we to do about the fact that that the big piece of this didn’t work?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think we just have to accept it and move on. I don’t know what else you can do about it. There can be a lot of recrimination later as to why it didn’t work exactly right. But for the moment in the context of the battle for Iraq, I think you just have to accept the fact that unless you get another shot at him somehow that you’re going to have that government in place until you have in fact taken the capital and eliminated the infrastructure of the government. And I will say again that the army and the marine corps is going to depend very heavily on our friends in the air power community, because if you take on these Republican Guard divisions and dug in positions, unless they been really softened a lot, you’re going to have a very hard time.

GWEN IFILL: Col. Warden, if the air power community works, and there is some sort of movement we don’t know about, successful movement coming from the North or the West, what has to happen then in the next twenty-four to thirty-six hours?

COL. JOHN WARDEN: Well, I’m still of the very, very strong opinion that what we ought to be doing is to figure all every way possible to avoid a siege of a city. Cities suck up divisions, civilians die, the carnage is terrible on both sides and it takes a long period of time. Now, can we significantly reduce the strength of the Republican Guard moving or starting from there — absolutely. But as they move back into the city, when do you that, all of our humanitarian concerns become a little difficult to carry out. We cannot abandon the strategic attempt at this point.

GWEN IFILL: And Mr. Al-Taee, finally, one of the things we heard a lot about in the early days of this conflict is that Iraqis would welcome American forces, we saw some pictures of people dancing for and against the forces coming in. Was that always, was that raising expectations too high, that people would embrace basically the forces of the British and the United States coming in and taking over on their path to Baghdad?

AZIZ AL-TAEE: Yeah, I think it has been kind of exaggerated because the people in Iraq have been under 13 years of sanctions and Saddam has been basically brainwashing the people. He’s also, there was a big problem with the credibility of the U.S. because of failing the Iraqi people in 1992, after the uprising, after the Gulf War.

We did not do the communication message the way we should have been – the outreach to the Iraqi people — and also we didn’t deal with the opposition figures, for example, the Shia Ayatollah Bakr al Hakim, who was in Iran, we happen to have problems with the Iranian government, so there was a lot of problems with the outreach and I think we are seeing some of it right now.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Al-Taee and colonels three, thank you all very much.