the invasion of iraq
photo of conway

Conway was commander of the 50,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I-MEF). While the Army's 5th Corps was to advance through the desert west of the Euphrates River, the Marines were to attack through the inhabited areas east of the Euphrates in the advance on Baghdad. In this interview he discusses the quality of intelligence provided his forces, the Marines' deadly battle at Nasiriya, the Fedayeen attacks, the British go-slow strategy in dealing with resistance in Basra, the war's civilian deaths, and finally, whether there are valid lessons that can be drawn from this conflict.

interview: Lt. Gen. James Conway

Tell us when the war began for you.

I think we'd better be careful drawing lessons from the whole of the effort.  I'd have cautioned our headquarters and our decision-makers that this is probably an anomaly, both for the Marine Corps, and perhaps for the nation.

The plan had called for an attack on the morning of the 22nd [of March, 2003] that got moved back about 24 hours to the morning of the 21st. However, at that time, we were also on a four hour string. In other words, we needed to be prepared to attack with about four hours notice. We got the word on the afternoon of the 19th to attack, and we passed that word to our units and they were away within a couple of hours.

Why was that attack brought forward?

Principally because we were concerned about the preservation of the oil fields. We knew that there were seven or eight key nodes in the southern oil fields that we needed to preserve in order to establish the reconstitution of oil production in the wake of the war. So when we saw that Saddam was starting to destroy some of those oil heads, I think that's principally what prompted our higher headquarters to tell us to attack. ...

Why, in the end, was it decided not to have one or two or three weeks of air strikes?

I think the concern with an elongated period of air strikes was that it would give Saddam a chance to do those things that he wanted to do before we actually launched a ground attack. And again, the principle concern was the preservation of the oilfields. I think, had we started air strikes out before we crossed the line, his decision cycle would have been able to affect whatever destruction he may have wanted to incorporate into his defense efforts. So it got smaller and smaller in order to pre-empt as much as we could his ability to react, eventually to the point where we even recommended that we go simultaneous with air preparation, but not prior air strikes.

How happy were you with the intelligence the Marines had as the war began, in terms of the likely reaction, the levels of resistance, et cetera, of the Iraqi Army, the Republican Guard?

We thought the intelligence was pretty good. I mean, we had cause to believe that certain of the commanders were prepared to capitulate, or surrender, to use your term. We had a pretty good fix on general location of brigades and divisions and what their defensive networks would look like. Part of that information held up, part of it did not. We took very few prisoners compared to the mass that we anticipated. One of the units that we thought would capitulate early on was the 11th Infantry Division, in the vicinity of Nasiriya. I think by war's end we will look back and say they fought us harder than anybody else. So there certainly were some surprises in that context. But, that said, we found major formations where we thought they would be, and we were able to strike them with our air [forces]. ...

As a civilian in those early days, one definitely had the sense that the high command had expected something to happen which didn't. Was that a correct perception?

No, I think that's fair to say. I'll give you an instance. We were told by our intelligence folks that the enemy is carrying civilian clothes in their packs because, as soon as the shooting starts, they're going put on their civilian clothes and they're going go home. Well, they put on their civilian clothes, but not to go home. They put on civilian clothes to blend with the civilians and shoot back at us. So there were some surprises that occurred, vis-a-vis what we were led to believe by the intelligence. But they were not severe to the extent that it slowed our movement, obviously, and our ability to attack through them.

What about the civilian population? Were you surprised by the fact that you perhaps didn't get more help from the civilian population? Were you expecting something more?

... There were not the uprisings in the city to destroy the Ba'athists that we thought actually could be helpful. There [were] not the revenge murders that we were concerned about. There was, I would say, a neutered response on the part of the civilians to about everything that was going on. They were absolutely terrified that we would not be successful, or that Saddam would be back and, once again, retribution would be held. ...

As you crossed the border initially, what was your intelligence on weapons of mass destruction?

Our concern with the weapons of mass destruction as we crossed the line of departure was that we could be struck right then. We looked at, perhaps, four triggers. One was crossing the line of departure; another was crossing the Euphrates River, the vicinity of Nasiriya. Another was closing with the initial Republican Guards division, up around Kut with the Baghdad Division. And the fourth would be, as we knew, the missile zone outside of Baghdad. ...

How much of a surprise was that for you?

It was a pleasant surprise. There was a night where we intercepted a radio transmission, a high level radio transmission that had a simple word passed. It was "blood", and we thought we knew what that meant. Everybody that night slept with their mask[s] in very close proximity, as well as sleeping in their suit[s]. It was a pleasant thing to wake up the next morning and realize that none of the force had been hit. I was awakened multiple times every night with various tidbits of information. I was just certain that I was gonna get that terrible word that night. …

Talk me through the Marine route. What was the logic of that? Why that route?

Our assigned route had much to do with the fact that we were the supporting attack. The MEF was always going to be in support of the main effort, which was the 5th Corps in the western desert. We needed, therefore, to have separation. We needed to threaten other lines of advance, and in that regard we wound up looking principally at Highway 7 and Highway 1, both crossing very close to Nasiriya. They were not good routes. They are in the river delta where you don't have a lot of off-road maneuverability. They were assessed to be brigade-size avenues of approach. We were putting an entire division -- in fact, major elements of the ground forces of the MEF -- across those two avenues. And there were a number of built-up areas along them.

So a whole combination of things led us to think that it could be slow [going] as we attacked north. Route 1 was not in as good [of] shape in the southern stretch as we hoped that it would be. A number of culverts and a number of bridges were down, so it was only through the magnificent efforts of our engineers and others that we were able to turn it into a fairly serviceable route, especially for the follow-up convoys.

But given that the whole game plan was to "decapitate the snake," why not just hook up through the desert, just get there as fast as possible through unpopulated, clear country?

Well, the main reason is that [the Iraqi army] had many, many divisions south of Baghdad, and you don't want to have all those divisions able to focus on a single spear, a single axis of advance. So in our role as a supporting attack, we counted eight divisions that we would have to engage in one fashion or another -- from the 3rd Corps, 4th Corps and the Republican Guard Corps -- up around Baghdad. Our task was to tie those people up, to pick a fight with anybody that would pay attention to us and divert them from the effort of the Army further west, and we did that. ...

We did make every effort to avoid the urban centers. There were a couple of exceptions to that, obviously, but by and large we did not want to get engaged in city fighting because we thought that that would both delay and maximize his advantages in the city. ...

What were your feelings about the way the British dealt with Basra?

We were very interested in the British tactics for a number of reasons. Basra is the second largest city in Iraq, and the British were immediately faced with the situation that was taking place in Basra. I think in a sense it was a microcosm of what we thought we could expect in Baghdad. We saw the Fedayeen; we saw the Ba'athists. We saw enemy units pouring into Basra to be able to use their natural advantages inside the city. So even as we were attacking northwest, we were looking over our shoulder at General Brims in the 1st Armored Division to see exactly what his successes and failures might be.

We had a great level of satisfaction because, I think, he played it just about right. He was employing force protection for his soldiers by using the very good British tanks and armored personnel carriers. They were often better than ours because they can sustain a RPG hit [and still] go in and take down specified targets. We were using precision bombing inside Basra to strike known meetings of Ba'athists. He was using a very effective information-operations campaign so that the people understood what it was he was attempting to do. And in the end there was pressure on the part of our higher command to encourage the British to actually take Basra at an earlier date than they wanted to do so. We resisted principally on the strength of General Brims' belief that the enemy was reinforcing failure in Basra. He was knocking out eight to 10 tanks a night as they tried to send them against his forces … and we were only too happy to do that. We eventually convinced our higher command jointly that it was wise to allow him to feed his forces piecemeal against this, and we'd take Basra in due time. ...

Nasiriya on the 23rd -- talk me through your own personal memories of that day.

We had to put virtually the entire MEF's ground forces up through the vicinity of Nasiriya. If you look at the geography, the Highway 1 road bridge crosses about 12 or 14 kilometers to the west. Highway 7 road bridges cross right in the middle of the city, but there are some … bridges on the eastern edge of the city that give access to Highway 7. We were going to attack up Highway 7 to put pressure on Kut from the south, and we were gonna have our main effort go up Highway 1. Additionally, the Army was setting up its first logistics support site just at a little airbase outside of Nasiriya, and the Army's main supply route ran just south of Nasiriya, which we had responsibility to protect. So Nasiriya was of central focus to us from the very beginning. ...

The friendly fire incident -- how did that happen?

Well, the investigation of a friendly fire incident is still underway, and we won't know all the facts until we read the investigation. But from individual reports on the scene, we believe that the A10s may have been cleared erroneously to the north of the river to strike targets there. Secondly, we believe that there may have been some failings to identify friendly forces … through vehicle recognition and those types of things. ...

I sense that amongst the Marines there's some anger about that incident.

There may be some anger, if that's an appropriate word. I think at this point there's just more anxiety that [friendly fire] continues to happen. In the last war, we lost Marines to A10s. We believe we've lost Marines through A10s in this war. And it's one of our major efforts now, in the wake of it all, to find a better IFF -- Identification of Friendly or Foe -- system that will allow a shooter to realize that that target is a friendly or enemy vehicle.

Talk me through the battle there.

It was a matter of just holding [the city] for a period of 10 days or so before we actually declared the city secure. Very quickly, in the wake of Task Force Tarawa securing the bridges, they left a battalion to the north. [Battalion] 12 was to the north; they used [Battalion] 28 to secure the southern bridges. They used their other battalion and some other LAR -- Light Armament Reconnaissance -- people to secure the Highway 1 bridge, and that remained their tasking for a number of days to hold open those routes so that the division could pour troops through it.

On the morning of the 25th, the 1st [Marine] Regimental Combat team poured through what they called "Ambush Alley", and were able to push north and up Highway 7. Once that was accomplished, Task Force Tarawa would then turn inwardly to ensure that the city and … the bad guys who were in it and around it did not reach out and attack those vital areas I spoke to you of earlier. They did that through a series of co-operation with Special Operations forces, through, again, some pinpoint bombing of some targets inside the city. We had good intelligence one night that there was a mass of enemy fighters forming at a railway station. So we launched some pre-emptive artillery strikes into there and, once again, somewhat like our British comrades had done in Basra, started taking down portions of the city, little by little, until eventually they had killed or captured or driven off everybody that was inside. ...

[Were] the fighters within Nasiriya inspired by the ambush of the 507th?

We believe that the fighters had been inspired. We had the opportunity to talk to the commander of the 23rd Brigade, the 11th Regular Army who was in command, at least in the early going, of some of the forces before we captured him, and he said as much to us. They thought, for whatever reason, that the vehicles of the 507th represented our first attack on Nasiriya. [And] they were able to destroy the vehicles. The maintenance outfit hadn't put up a lot of fight such as an infantry company [would], and that they were able to capture and kill a number of them, I think, motivated the fighters across the board -- the Fedayeen, the Ba'athists, the regular soldiers who said, "Hey, we can hold this place."

We heard -- later in the war, before Nasiriya was completely secured -- that there were people coming all the way from Baghdad down to Nasiriya to join in the fracas because they considered that there was success. So my belief is that we [changed their minds] pretty quickly when they felt the fires of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and the strength of the air. I think that probably provided them with a pretty serious jolt. But there was about a 36- to 48-hour period where the word was on the streets that they had met and defeated Americans.

So the ambush of the 507th is a trigger--?

We think so. We think that what happened with the 507th impacted what happened [in] Nasiriya in a variety of ways. ...

Was the determination and, in some cases, fanaticism of the Fedayeen and some other fighters -- the Ba'athists and so on -- a surprise, a shock at Nasiriya?

Yeah. I think the tenacity of the Fedayeen in particular was not a shock, but a surprise. On a scale of 10, I'd put it out at 6. We knew they were going to be there. We certainly expected to see them, actually, in greater numbers than we did in Baghdad. But I don't think that we accredited the tenacity … to them that we eventually saw. That was a little bit of a surprise to us. We felt like, if that was going to be the best they could put against us, that they wouldn't amount to much. As it turned out, we had to pay them more attention than we thought we would have to. ...

We come to a period of the war here where we've had the fighting at Nasiriya; the British have been stopped at Basra; there's the Apache attack the following morning that doesn't work out as planned. Then the sandstorms set in. Talk me through how you're feeling at this point.

There were a number of things that seemed to hit us all about the same time that dented our momentum and caused us to examine [our] plan. I think my initial concern with the sandstorm is that we always knew that it would limit our air [forces], and the ability to identify and strike targets on the ground, and that the enemy had an opportunity to counterattack locally or on a larger scale. … We also had some hits from one of our airborne intelligence meetings that said there were 300, 400 -- in one case 1,000 vehicles headed south out of Baghdad during that storm. So it caused us to also look at our night-time defenses in a different fashion. So my concern was always that he could slip in a pretty effective punch, under cover of those things, and our ability to respond with the air would not be nearly as great as it normally would.

But the sense -- in Britain in particular but also in Washington to some degree -- at that point was that things were going very wrong, that we'd gone into a war that had turned out to be a very different war from what we'd expected. I'm sure you were aware the knives were out, to some degree, for the whole Rumsfeld strategy. How worried were you on the ground?

We had a single channel back into the United States -- we read the daily publications. And we sensed that there was some negativism and some concern on the part of our countrymen that [the war] wasn't going well. [But] we were cautious about certain things. We were trying to look at the enemy, the most dangerous avenue of approach, options that he had that he could employ against us. But I've got to tell you, throughout the entirety of the sandstorm, the 1st Marine Division was pushing up Highway 1. So although things might not be happening as fast as we would like, they were still happening, and in some regards the sandstorms [gave] us cover, too. So we should never forget that that they are on the move. Our air [forces], although impeded some, were still able to strike [and] were still able to get up off the airfields. So we were never terribly concerned -- just slowed some by the effects of the storm. I think it's fair to say [that], re-evaluating what we now saw to be the enemy tactics, both in the vicinity of Basra [and] in Nasiriya.

So was there a pause?

There was a pause. There was always going to be a pause. The 1st Marine Division paused initially when we relieved the British in the southern oilfields. They moved to the west, took about 24 hours to re-arm, re-fit, and get some rest. My guidance to the division was, "I want you to hit Nasiriya like a pivot point and push rapidly across the bridges. We don't want our entire MEF cloistered around Nasiriya." And he did that.

The second pause, if you will, was to be up Highway 1 where, once again, we had to refuel our tanks, replenish our supplies, and be prepared for a similar rapid movement across the Tigris. So there was a pause, but it was a planned pause. And when you got a force of that weight -- I mean, this is the heaviest force that the Marine Corps employed, probably since the Gulf War and maybe even including the Gulf War -- you've got to ensure that the vehicles, the maintenance and the resupply, the fuelling and the re-arming of the vehicles -- that's necessary, and you can't do that on the move.

Talk me through the video conference on March 25th. What are your memories of that?

Very dim. We had audio conferences and we talked about these types of things, but my [recollection] is that that was the essence of the discussion -- should we wait, should we move on, shall we keep punching out. I think in the end that the right decision was made, that we would move faster [rather] than slower and take advantage of the moment that we build up. …

How long was General Wallace arguing for a pause?

I don't know that General Wallace mentioned how long -- I mean, a number of days. I think he was just concerned more about the effects of what it would take to secure his supply lines, than he was talking days or weeks. I don't remember an actual period in time being referenced. It was just his concern for his rear area, and in fact, again, his tanks need voluminous amounts of fuel in the ability to get his tankers up and down the roadway.

I have a sense these were fairly heated exchanges.

No, it was not a heated debate. We all have great working relationships -- have since the first day we met. I would say it was fairly collegial. That was certainly my observation of any discussions. If there were private discussions that occurred between General Wallace and General McKiernan, I simply cannot speak to that. But General McKiernan heard us all out. We allowed our justification for our perspective and he essentially, I think, in very short order, made a decision.

Characterize the sort of resistance that the Republican Guard and the regular army put up.

… They were not terribly effective. Any army should have the ability to coordinate its supporting arms, its defensive positions, its long range fires with its close range fires, [et cetera]. And that simply didn't happen. I can't cite you a single incidence where we would qualify [the resistance] as being very effective. Again, I attribute that in great part to the effect that our Marine Air Wing had had in days prior to the engagements. In every scenario where we had tanks and amtracks in the attack, we had Cobras overhead searching for those very types of targets. … Our guys deserve some credit for part of it, [but the Iraqi military] just never quite got it together, vis-a-vis what you might expect with another army. ...

There's been some criticism of the behavior of the Marines at the Diyala bridge in terms of civilian casualties.

Well, after the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines crossed, the resistance was not all gone. … They had just fought to take a bridge. They were being counterattacked by enemy forces. Some of the civilian vehicles that wound up with the bullet holes in them contained enemy fighters in uniform with weapons, some of them did not. Again, we're terribly sorry about the loss of any civilian life where civilians are killed in a battlefield setting. I will guarantee you, it was not the intent of those Marines to kill civilians. [The civilian casualties happened because the Marines] felt threatened, [and] they were having a tough time distinguishing from an enemy that [is violating] the laws of land warfare by going to civilian clothes, putting his own people at risk. All of those things, I think, [were an] impact [on the behavior of the Marines], and in the end it's very unfortunate that civilians died.

Force protection and overwhelming force -- those two tactics have a complete logic in military terms, but would you accept that there are implications for any civilian population caught in the area when the Americans are using those tactics?

Well, there's always going to be impact on civilians in a battlefield environment. The best thing a civilian can do in a battlefield environment is go to ground and stay there. That's exactly what we told them to do in the information operations plan that was imposed -- leaflets were dropped.

You speak of overwhelming force. Those civilians who were killed were killed with rifle bullets or, in some cases, light machine guns. They weren't taken out with tank fire. They weren't struck with air [artillery], so I would offer that [the Marines were] using the minimum force needed at the time to defend themselves [against] enemy car bombers. The 3rd Infantry Division had lost a number of soldiers in this attack [from] car bombers. We had had Marines injured and a tank knocked out shortly before we crossed the bridge. So all of those things are in the minds of the Marines. There were warning shots fired that were not adhered to, and I think at that point the Marines … deemed that the vehicles represented a threat and took them under fire. In an ideal world we would have had MPs out there with cones and all the things that protect us at this base -- that's simply not possible in the heat of combat, as you're moving forward.

Are warning shots an appropriate technique in a civilian environment?

Our rules of engagement did not require warning shots, per se. There was nothing that said that if we thought that a force was threatened that we had to fire a warning shot to give them a chance to react; the warning shots I speak of are, [for example,] shots through the block of an engine, or shots that may show a tracer coming across the hood of a vehicle. Those were the things that I think the Marines were attempting to do: firing in front of vehicles, [stirring] up a dust cloud -- those types of things that would deter a civilian from driving and getting into the middle of a combat scenario.

Could [more thought] have been given beforehand to how roadblocks and checkpoints and perimeters are organized in civilian areas?

Had we perfect knowledge of what was going to happen, that the enemy was going to go to civilian clothes, attack us in taxi cabs and vehicles and try to blow us up, we might have found another way to do things. If you're asking me if I'm going to have a Marine go out and post a [stop] sign in the middle of a roadway when he's being shot at, I'm probably not going to do that. We terribly regret the civilian casualties, but those things happen in war. They're very regrettable, but I'm not going to expose Marines to arbitrary methods to try to preclude that situation. ...

Were you surprised by how easily Baghdad fell?

I really was surprised at how quickly Baghdad fell. … I'm not saying it was easy, but it was not nearly as difficult as we thought it would be in the wake of Nasiriya and based on what we saw happening with the British in Basra. At what point the Fedayeen lost their tenacity, or the army decided not to take advantage of the built-up areas and the tough fighting that that involves -- we don't know. But the fact is when it came to cutting time, they just weren't there. ...

How valid is it to draw lessons from this conflict? ...

... I think we'd better be careful drawing lessons from the whole of the effort, if you will. I'd have cautioned our headquarters and our decision-makers that this is probably an anomaly, both for the Marine Corps and perhaps for the nation. ... I also think that we should not formulate changes to the force structure based on what has now been a couple of fights against Iraqis. I don't think [they had a] terribly efficient army. I think both the Gulf War and this Operation Iraqi Freedom will show us that. …

So the light footprint has worked in Iraq, [but] it wouldn't necessarily work elsewhere?

The footprint needs to be determined by each situation, and I think that a competent set of planners would give us that. There might be a situation similar to this, but with different forces defending, [in which] what we impose wouldn't work at all. And I think, again, that's the beauty of the great people we have that identify these things for us and plan them well, and then [we] execute [those plans].

But for the people above you -- would your message be [to not] always think it'll be this easy?

Yeah. … Again, we've just got to make sure that we put the right force against the right requirement, wherever that may be. We've got the force to do it. You can say that two divisions defeated the Iraqi Army in this case -- because that's essentially what it boiled down to. Ver well supported, of course, by carrier air, the Air Force. But two ground divisions essentially moved up to Baghdad. ...


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posted february 26, 2004

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