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Advancing on Baghdad

April 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the significance of the latest moves toward Baghdad, and what coalition forces are facing, we hear from two of the NewsHour’s retired colonel corps: Former army Special Forces officer and Middle East intelligence analyst W. Patrick Lang; and former Air Force operations planner Sam Gardiner. Joining them is retired Marine Lt. Col. Dale Davis. He’s held air defense and counterintelligence posts in the Middle East, the Gulf, and North Africa. He’s now director of international programs, and also teaches Arabic at the Virginia Military Institute. Welcome to you all.

Colonel Davis, put today’s action in an overall strategic context for us. Is this as so many headline writers said today, the beginning of the battle for Baghdad?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: Well, in my view it was the beginning of the battle to destroy the Republican Guard. And as we saw the battle progress today or the reports returned from the area of operations, it appears that much of the Republican Guard was, in fact, already destroyed by the air bombardment.

So this will allow us to project forces closer to Baghdad but the actual battle for Baghdad may be several days away. There are still concerns about the remaining Republican Guard divisions that may be positioned between our forces and Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, I think that is exactly right and I think what they are going to find as they go forward that these Republican Guard formations have been largely torn to pieces so they’ll move over and across the top of the wiping out whatever pockets of resistance there maybe. I don’t think they’ll go into the city straight away. There is probably going to be a hesitation while they probe the defenses to see how much resistance there really is.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Big surprise. I, they said we went through them too fast. It was supposed to have been the big engagement. Even yesterday they were saying that when we met those divisions, that it would be the fight would start. Then in one day, they are destroyed — big surprise.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go on, tell us a little more about the Republican Guard, Col. Davis, what makes them so special?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: They are special in a relative term. First of all that single word special creates confusion because there is another unit called the Special Republican Guard. The Republican Guard are special in the sense, in several ways. In terms of their selection — they are selected from generally tribal affiliations that are close to Saddam Hussein’s al-Bu Nasir tribe. They receive the best training, the best pay, the best benefits, the best housing, the best equipment that is available– once again, that is in relative terms. What’s available in Iraq is much less than what was available in ’91.

MARGARET WARNER: Is their reputation deserved?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: Relatively well so. I think, I have colleagues that have reported to me who are in the first armored division, the American first armored division that fought a significant battle with the first or the Medina Division of the Republican Guard.

MARGARET WARNER: In the first Gulf War.

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: In the first Gulf War. They were very impressed with the way that unit held together under extreme conditions. They were being decimated by U.S. forces but they held their ground and they continued to fight until they were ordered to withdraw. And that engendered a lot of respect on the part of the American Army officers.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yeah, they, in that instance and also in the Iran-Iraq War there are a number of instances in which they held together remarkably well considering the pounding they were getting. They seemed to have an ability to move forward under fire – using fire and movement that you didn’t find in a lot of other Iraqi formations.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: And we did see interestingly repositioning of the Republican Guard divisions over the past couple of weeks which was sort of a surprise.

MARGARET WARNER: I think we have a map actually of where they were originally positioned. Maybe we can put that up. Explain what you are talking about.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: It’s almost has been in two phases. Early in the war there were two Republican Guard divisions relatively far to the North around Kirkuk and the oil fields –

MARGARET WARNER: Way up North.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Way up North and one around Mosul. The division around Mosul moved back actually before the war started. We then heard two days ago that the other division was in the vicinity of Tikrit, which is –

MARGARET WARNER: So this would be like the Nebuchadnezzar –

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. So then, in essence, what became clear was the strategy of bringing the Republican Guard back in towards Baghdad for the final battle. Then sort of my assumption was that if you looked at the two divisions that were out front that that would be the first battle, that that would be where the major first engagement would take place. At the, at al Kut they didn’t blow the bridge. The division seems to have gone.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s where the Baghdad division was?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Yes, yes, exactly, and then the Medina Division which was in the vicinity of Karbala, also that battle seems to have gone fairly well today.

MARGARET WARNER: Pat Lang, when ground forces, U.S. ground forces finally encounter a Republican Guard division what really happens on the battle field?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Well, what happens really is that — and in fairly open country like this before you get to the city because the city is a completely different thing — but what typically happens is that you have a whole series of smaller battles that take place.

For example, you would have a company of U.S. mechanized infantry, which is 160 men, who ride around in these Bradley armored fighting vehicles that look like little tanks with the smallish canon on top that turns. A half a dozen real tanks — Abrams tanks –would be given the task of capturing something out in front of them a couple of miles away, maybe a group of buildings, a small hill that has got some dug-in positions on it, then the commander of this task team, which is what that would be called, would arrange for the preparation by fire of this objective and the jet fighters would come in and pound the devil out of it with bombs and precision guided munitions.

Then the armed helicopters show up and do the same thing to it and then the artillery, when they go away, then the artillery who have stopped shooting while the airplanes were in the area will go back to pounding it some more with high explosive fires and maybe lay down smoke between the attacking forces to make it harder to shoot. Then they keep pounding and pounding.

Then the whole force approaches mounted with the tanks in front usually and the armored personnel carriers behind. They may just ride up on to the objective. But if it looks dangerous for the tanks because the tanks are very vulnerable to little guys with rocket propelled grenades and things like this, if that is the case, they’ll dismount the infantry from the Bradleys…

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning all the soldiers get out.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Get out and they’ll surround the tanks, and the whole force will go forward together firing with the infantry and the tanks and the armored personnel carriers. You move like this towards your own artillery fire…

MARGARET WARNER: So the infantry is actually out in front of the tanks?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Some in front, some on the sides, some in the back — to make sure the tanks are safe from, from infantry anti-tank weapons, and you go forward like this with your own artillery firing, and the way I always believe in doing it, is you go forward like that until you see spent pieces of shrapnel from your own artillery fire hitting your vehicles and maybe see a soldier flinch because something hit him in the middle of the chest and then you fire a pyrotechnic, a red star cluster or something and say on the radio — for the artillery to shift. And they then move to the other side of the objective with their fires. And you assault up on to the objective across that.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning the ground troops –

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: Yes, the tanks, the infantry and everybody, and the idea of this drill is to get there before the little guys come up out of their holes and get their wits together so they can start shooting back at you. So that you want to wait till the last minute to shift that artillery fire, then you prepare to defend the objective and you get ready to attack another place.

MARGARET WARNER: What does it tell you going back to what Col. Gardiner, we were talking about, about the apparent melting away or destruction — different terms were used today, of these two, the Medina and the Baghdad division? I mean, what does that say to you?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: I think it can tell you one of two things really, number one, perhaps – and this is what we hope for — that our air power — precision air power in this case has been so effective that it just utterly has decimated these divisions. The second option is perhaps the divisions under the cover of night have withdrawn and moved back towards Baghdad or they’ve split up into smaller combat ineffective units but are still working on withdrawal towards Baghdad.

MARGARET WARNER: That is an interesting term that was used today. Well, they mean they are not effective but effective as a large fighting force doesn’t mean –

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s exactly right. And probably the best historical connection is back during Gulf I, the first Gulf War, when we said our objective was to destroy 50 percent of a unit before the attack. That meant 50 percent of the combat fighting vehicles, so it wouldn’t be effective as a unit. But if the strategy is for them to go back and fight as small units which we’ve talked about before, then they could be 100 percent effective as small units. And we haven’t seen the prisoners so that is, that is an important thing.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You can’t count on as he says on these people remaining disorganized just because their division is now messed up because they can reform into smaller units and still cause you a lot of trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: Wouldn’t — when U.S. forces finally get on the scene, wouldn’t they be able to tell by the number of dead Iraqi soldiers whether — or prisoners — whether they’ve actually decimated this unit?

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: You can’t be, you can’t really expect they are going to assault every objective that has troops on it all the way into the outskirts of Baghdad. There are going to be a lot of places that are inevitably and people that are going to be bypassed in the process. There is some risk that they’ll get into your rear areas and cause you problems with the line of supply and things like that.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the Republican Guard — well first of all it’s often said of them, they are “not allowed to go into Baghdad.” What are the roots of that?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: Well, the Republican Guard was formed during the mid 1980s when the Iran-Iraq War was going very, very badly for Iraq. And Saddam Hussein basically came up — the problem in these sort of regimes — authoritarian regimes — is your army is generally concerned with defending the regime from internal threat not external threat. So you tend to keep it weak. Your greatest threat as the leader of such an authoritarian regime is the possibility of a coup.

MARGARET WARNER: That they turn on you.

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: So at this point Saddam Hussein was faced with the dilemma, he needed a professional military organization that he could be sure would also remain loyal so he turned to the cadre of at that time the Republican Guard, which was the presidential guard, to form a professional military fighting force. They performed very well in the later stages of the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq war when I say the Gulf War. They led the offensives in 1988 that effectively defeated Iran.

Then after the ’91 war, there were some problems with the Republican Guard. And in ’95 there was a significant event where one of the tribal — the Republican Guard is actually at that time was formed along tribal lines revolted against Saddam and some of their leaders were executed — tortured and executed — and they actually attacked the prison outside of Baghdad.

At that point Saddam Hussein no longer trusted them to the degree that he had before. He had his son form a new unit, the Special Republican Guard which took over the responsibility for a presidential and regime protection. And he kept the Republican Guard outside of Baghdad allowing the special Republican Guard to take over the duties of protection of the city.

MARGARET WARNER: So can Saddam Hussein count on the loyalty of the Republican Guard? How much is known about that?

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: Well, actually, the interesting evidence that we have is, “a”, he might not be in charge. But, “b”, the evidence in the battles in the South are that whether it’s Republican Guard or not, there are people fighting. So that as a soldier, you have to keep in mind both possibilities. And when you go to the battle of Baghdad, that’s why we heard in the briefing this morning that we may be getting the tougher part of the battle.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I don’t really think the people fighting in the South in Nasiriya and Basra and a lot of the places are Republican Guard troops. I think there may be some scattering of Republican Guard personnel and of course these militia characters but I think mostly what you got down there are regular army troops who were told as a part of a national strategy to put on civilian clothes, go out and join a guerrilla outfit, and defend in the enemy’s rear area, because that seems to be reflected by some of the prisoners that have been taken and things like that.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: The interesting thing –they haven’t been at Najaf. They didn’t defend there.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: No.

MARGARET WARNER: The holy city we heard talked about.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: That’s right. That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: So how long do each of you think before fighting begins in Baghdad? We saw there are still parts of the division all around Baghdad. To what degree do they really have to be in some way dispersed before the U.S. Military feels comfortable moving on?

LT. COL. DALE DAVIS: I think best case scenario we hope by destroying the Republican Guard and surrounding the city that will somehow finally bring enough pressure on the regime that it will collapse from within. If we do have to go in I think we have to wait at that point. We’re so far extended. We’ve got troops in the field now for two and a half weeks, fighting basically in a constant status. We have to wait for the elements — at least elements of the 4th Infantry Division to enter the field of battle before we’re prepared to actually try to take on Baghdad in a piecemeal way.

COL. W. PATRICK LANG: I think once we crack the shell the one thing we’re going to have to do is probe hard enough to find out if the people are going to fight.

COL. SAMUEL GARDINER: We’ll be on the outskirts tomorrow. And I expect aggressive patrolling to begin the next day.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.