Battle for Baghdad looms: U.S. approaching from three sides

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The United States is preparing for the battle for Baghdad with bombing runs and attacks on Republican Guard units.

U.S. Air Force bombers have increased bombing sorties against the Iraqi capital as American ground forces, backed by F-16 multi-role fighters, attacked Republican Guard units deployed around city. Officials said the targets included Iraqi television, a telecommunications facility and unspecified satellite communications installations.

Allied troops have been approaching Baghdad from three directions and have crossed all the bridges that span the Euphrates River, officials said.

The Republican Guard sustained heavy casualties in fierce fighting around the Shi'ite cities of Najaf and Karbala on Wednesday, Middle East Newsline reported.

"We've been at it now for less than a week," Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday. "We're just about to Baghdad."

In the west, U.S. and British special forces captured Al Rutba, a strategic Iraqi town near the Jordanian border and cut off Highway 10, which links the region with Baghdad. Officials said allied forces are in control of western Iraq, particularly the areas of H-2 and H-3, used to launch missiles against Israel in the 1991 Gulf war.

"The Iraqis are not putting up a cohesive, coherent defense across all of Iraq," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "It's spotty defense: a unit here, Fedayeen here, the regulars here, Republican Guard there."

Officials said the allied focus is to weaken the Republican Guard forces that are protecting the capital. They said the United States has targeted three Republican Guard divisions, totalling about 30,000 troops, with the focus on the Medina unit, deployed around 50 kilometers south of Baghdad.

The Medina division is regarded as the linchpin of the Republican Guard and has been under constant bombardment since Monday. On Monday, the division beat back an Apache helicopter attack in a battle that has sparked a review of tactics by U.S. commanders.

Officials said allied forces are bracing for the prospect that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will order chemical weapons attacks against U.S. and British forces that reach the outskirts of Baghdad. They said some of the six Republican Guard divisions have been provided with such weapons.

"There has been intelligence scraps, who knows how accurate they are, chatter in the system that suggest that the closer that coalition forces get to Baghdad and Tikrit, the greater the likelihood and that some command and control arrangements [to use chemical weapons] have been put in place," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said. "But whether it will happen or not remains to be seen."

Pentagon sources said they did not believe the United States would seek an imminent entry into Baghdad. They said Central Command first wants to beef up supply lines from Kuwait to the Iraqi front.

Scores of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft have been transporting supplies and command and communications equipment from the Persian Gulf to a command post near Nasiriya. The effort includes the transfer of the headquarters of the Marine Aircraft Group 16, currently onboard the USS Boxer off the Iraqi coast, to inside the country.

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