MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, SOUTHERN IRAQU.S. forces have begun an assault on the Iraqi capital, with a double-barrel attack on the Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad. Capitalizing on days of withering attacks on Saddam's best-trained units, Army and Marine forces pressed the attack against the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisionsthe first time U.S. ground forces have engaged Republican Guard divisions head on.
The attack began as the 1st Marine Division started an envelopment operation against the Baghdad Republican Guard Division stationed in the key southern city of Al Kut. In the dark of night, elements of the Marine division maneuvered north along Highway 1 from the southern approaches of the city, attempting to draw fire from the Republican Guard artillery batteries that had been decimated by a relentless, weeklong air assault. At the same time, the rest of the Marine Division ran a flanking maneuver to the west of Al Kut, laying a pontoon bridge over the Tigris River and cutting off Iraq's Highway 6, a key artery leading to the Iraqi capital. "We're tightening the noose around Baghdad," says Lt. Col. George Smith, a top Marine planner.
To the west of the marines, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division struck the Medina Division of the Republican Guard directly 50 miles south of Baghdad. In a battle just north of the holy city of Karbala, Army units engaged the Iraqi armored division defending the southern approaches to the capital. Early reports indicated that the Army has encountered slightly stiffer resistance in its fight than the Marines did along the banks of the Tigris. Yet the 3rd Infantry has now pushed though the Karbala Gap, a relatively narrow passage between the city and a major water reservoir to the west, which gives troops an open path to engage the final Republican Guard units defending Baghdad.
Like the Baghdad Division, the Medina Division had been judged "combat ineffective" by the Pentagonmeaning that airstrikes had reduced the unit's combat power by at least 50 percent. Nevertheless, top officers expressed surprise that the Republican Guard divisions have thus far seemed completely overwhelmed in the face of the two-pronged attack. "They're in serious trouble, and they remain in contact now with the most powerful force on Earth," said Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks during a Central Command briefing.
As U.S. troops advance toward Baghdad, U.S. commanders believe Saddam's command and control grows weaker by the day, as airstrikes on strategic targets in the capital have degraded the ability of the ruling Baath Party regime to actively coordinate a defense. "They're not fighting in concert," says Lt. Col. Dave Pere, an 1st MEF operations officer. "You can infer from that that their command and control at the national level is broken down." What is unclear to all, however, is whether Saddam has already given Republican Guard commanders the authority to launch chemical weapons on the attacking troops, in a desperate attempt to slow the advance.
Originally, the Marines had planned to take on the Baghdad Division first, pushing north and securing Highway 6 before the Army advanced against the Medina Division. Yet Central Command opted for a synchronized, two-division punch that would simultaneously knock out an entire layer of defense around Baghdad. The Army and Marine attack was moved up by 24 hours, with top commanders judging that the Republican Guard defenses had been softened enough to launch the ground assault. Commanders reworked their attack plans and pored over the latest intelligence about where they would cross the Tigris.
When the attack came, however, the Tigris crossing was surprisingly easy, with the Baghdad Division putting up little resistance as Marines sent armored columns streaming over the river and cut off Highway 6. "I fully expected a staged defense with the paramilitary forces on the outer line and then the Republican Guard forces in a prepared defense along the riverbank," says Col. Larry Brown, 1st MEF operations chief. "But they weren't there this morning."
For now, commanders say they see no indication that Saddam has sent units from the Al Nida and Hammurabi divisionsthe two divisions defending Baghdad properto reinforce the Iraqi forces now engaged. After daybreak, the Marines dispatched a lone F-18 jet on a reconnaissance flight along Highway 6, flying at 5,000 feet to monitor any movement of troops out of Baghdad. Save for a few civilian vehicles, the highway was empty.