- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 24 (UPI) — Two American Army pilots were missing in action after their Apache attack helicopter went down Monday near Baghdad while participating in an attack by up to 40 U.S. helicopter gunships on a Republican Guard facility, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks said at a news conference.

"The fate of the crew is uncertain right now," he said.

Abu Dhabi television was showing Iraqi footage of two men they claim to be the captured pilots, according to CNN.

The Pentagon identified the pilots Monday as Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Florida, and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Georgia.

They are part of the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment out of Fort Hood, Texas. The 227th is equipped with the Apache Longbow, the most advanced attack helicopter in the U.S. Army.

Also Monday, an American A-10 bombed a bridge in western Iraq 100 miles from the Syrian border, moments before a previously unnoticed bus of Syrian civilians reached the bridge, said Joint Staff Vice Director of Operations Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal at a Pentagon briefing Monday.

The pilot noticed the bus "too late to recall the weapon," McChrystal said.

The downed AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter was part of a formation of 30 to 40 aircraft that attacked the Medina Republican Guard division south of Baghdad, a mission Pentagon officials called "successful" despite the downed aircraft.

A senior military official said half of the combat sorties in the 36 hours preceding the attack were targeting Republican Guard divisions, including the Medina division.

Nevertheless, embedded reporters said the Apaches took heavy fire during the attack.

The Medina division, which protects Baghdad, was spread out and heavily dug in, requiring the attack-and-scout helicopters to engage the forces directly rather than targeting them with long-range munitions that don't put U.S. pilots at risk, McChrystal said.

"The Apache, when operating in organizations, has the ability to go out with the scout helicopters … to find targets and engage them effectively, and they can also bring in other fires," he said. "It gives them the opportunity to go in and almost search around an area to conduct destruction."

The Medina division "is a linchpin to the consistency of the Republican Guard defense," McChrystal said.

There are six Republican Guard divisions numbering about 60,000 soldiers, including the Medina and Baghdad, both of which stand between U.S. forces advancing on the Iraqi capital from the south. There are two Special Republican Guard divisions dispersed through Baghdad.

Iraqi TV showed the downed AH-64 helicopter sitting upright on the ground about 50 miles from Baghdad. It did not appear to have been shot down and might have been forced to land with mechanical trouble, a Pentagon official said.

The helicopter has since been destroyed by a coalition strike, a Pentagon official said.

Franks said sporadic fighting continued around Nasiriyah, Basra and Umm Qasr, largely by irregular Fedayeen forces, a paramilitary group organized by Saddam Hussein's son Uday. Special Republican Guard forces also were there, officials said.

Coalition forces were intentionally bypassing those large cities, seeking not to capture them, but only to control major resupply routes, bridges, airfields and ports so that humanitarian aid could get in, a Pentagon official said.

Rather than engage in bloody house-to-house fighting to rout the Fedayeen militia, coalition forces hope to topple Saddam's regime and remove the militia's main reason to fight. Once it becomes clear the regime is finished, military officials believe the fighters will abandon their positions.

"We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen. And so you can expect that our clean-up operations are going to be ongoing for across the days in the future," Franks said. "We know that the Fedayeen has in fact put himself in a position to mill about, to create difficulties in rear areas, and I can assure you that contact with those forces is not unexpected.

"We'll fight this on our terms," Franks said. "We'll undertake the sequencing and simultaneity of our operations on a time line that makes sense to us."

British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told reporters in London Monday the Fedayeen are active in Basra but there is no strategic reason to engage them there yet.

"We know full well that the militia are held up in Basra. They have machine-gun positions. They are moving some of the local population out of their homes. And they are preparing to intimidate, in the way that they have done in the past, local people," he said.

"Those towns and cities have no military strategic significance. And, clearly, ultimately they will have to be liberated, but I think it is best to be patient about the way in which we deal with that, rather than risking regular forces to, in effect, clean up those pockets of resistance when it is not militarily necessary to do so in the short term."

Where once an army could be expected to move a line of battle forward — fighting for and holding every inch of terrain it gained — forces under Franks are cutting narrow swaths through Iraq, isolating and avoiding Iraqi forces as much as possible under the belief that most will abandon their positions without a fight when the regime crumbles.

Franks said there have not been popular uprisings in these towns because the people are afraid of the paramilitary troops there.

"It has to do with the fact that fear tactics are still being applied in many of these locations. And that will change over time," Franks said.

To hasten that, coalition forces are working to get "massive amounts" of humanitarian aid into Basra and Umm Qasr, a strategy to win the loyalty of the occupants and further diminish the need to fight.

"I think what you'll find is that the people of Basra will, in the days ahead, be able to have more access to food and more access to water than they have had in decades. I believe within a few days — I believe within a very few days — you'll see that occur in Umm Qasr," Franks said.

Most of that food and water would be distributed by non-governmental humanitarian aid groups, a Pentagon source said.

Coalition forces are depending on their speed and agility to avoid unnecessary fights with Iraqi ground troops. The fast leading edge of the Army is coming within striking distance of Republican Guard-heavy Baghdad, an intentional strategy to keep forces their off guard, a senior military official said.

"We're going to do some things, some fast, some slow to meet very specific objectives and to keep (Iraqi troops) off guard in terms of how they can move into position," the official said.

"There are things that are visible and things that are invisible."

The tactic is not without its risks. It was this rear area where as many as 12 lightly armed Army soldiers with a maintenance company took a wrong turn and were ambushed by Iraqi by irregular forces near Nasiriyah.

The 12, members of an Army maintenance company from Fort Bliss, Texas, were listed as missing — including five soldiers videotaped by Iraqi officials during their interrogation.

"I think certainly we've got to recognize that it is not simply the front line that are vulnerable, which might have been the traditional way of viewing risk in this kind of conflict where there is such a fast-moving advance then," Hoon said. "As we have seen, there are risks that those behind the front line will face, and certainly we need to adjust our force protection to take account of those risks and to take account of the way in which the enemy is operating."

Franks said special forces soldiers have not yet found evidence of the chemical, biological or nuclear weapons nor Scud missiles, one of the main reasons U.S. President George W. Bush committed some 300,000 U.S, British and Australian troops to war.

A Pentagon official said a news report that the coalition had captured a chemical weapons plant may have been overstated.

"If we get evidence of chemical weapons, you can be sure we will be sure that reporting goes out," the official said.

The danger the weapons may be used against advancing coalition soldiers increases as they get close to Baghdad and as Saddam feels more threatened.

"There is a school of thought that says as the compression becomes tighter and tighter and tighter, the pressure will be greater and greater to use these weapons," Franks said. "My encouragement is to the people who will have their fingers on the trigger to use such weapons; we have very carefully said don't do it."

Coalition forces have dropped 28 million leaflets over Iraq instructing Iraqi troops and civilians how to signal their cooperation with coalition forces and how to avoid danger, said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a Central Command operations officer in Qatar. The leaflets have included warnings not to use so-called weapons of mass destruction against coalition forces.

Patriot missiles shot down at least two Iraqi missiles in the past 24 hours, Franks said. CNN reported Monday the Patriots had intercepted three missiles.

There is no evidence coalition missiles overshot Iraq and landed in Iran as was reported last week, according to Hoon.

"I'm fairly confident now they were Iraqi missiles and not coalition missiles. There is no reason to suspect that any of our missiles have strayed into Iranian airspace," he said.

CNN reported Monday two cruise missiles landed harmlessly in Turkey.

A Predator unmanned aerial vehicle armed with a Hellfire II missile destroyed an Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery gun Sunday, according to Central Command. It was the first use of the armed Predator in the war in Iraq. It debuted the capability in the Afghan war.

Australian special forces have been active with U.S. and British commandos in the north and west of Iraq. On Saturday, they called in an air strike on an Iraqi missile-handling site, destroying a special crane, fuel tanks, command-and-control vehicles and generators. On Sunday, they directed an air strike against an Iraqi platoon equipped with heavy weapons.

About 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have been taken prisoner so far, Franks said. Many more have abandoned their positions, he said.

The Pentagon confirms a total of 11 American soldiers and Marines are dead five days into the war. That number does not include the approximately 10 Marines believed killed Sunday in Nasiriyah in a faked surrender ambush.

The number includes U.S. forces killed in a helicopter crash and one 101st Airborne Division officer killed in a grenade attack, allegedly by a fellow soldier at Camp Pennsylvania in Northern Kuwait. It does not include the unidentified dead American soldiers showed on Iraqi television Sunday, some of whom had bullet wounds to the forehead.

CNN reports at least one British soldier was killed in Basra Monday.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke warned Iraqi troops are continuing their "deception and treachery" — pretending to surrender or disguising themselves as civilians. She also warned some are dressing and driving vehicles disguised as journalists.

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