- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

U.S. Army units attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard for the first time yesterday south of Baghdad, while enemy paramilitary units doggedly refused to let go of the strategic port city of Umm Qasr.
In the land engagement by 40 U.S. Army Apache helicopters, ground fire brought down one chopper. Its two American pilots survived a "hard landing," only to be captured by Iraqi forces, becoming the war's first allied aviators taken as prisoners of war.
On Sunday, Iraqi militia fighters ambushed an Army convoy. At least five soldiers were shown on Iraqi TV as POWs. At least four others of the 12-member team are believed dead, some shot execution-style.
In Washington, the White House announced the first war summit between the principal allied leaders, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mr. Blair will arrive in the United States tomorrow, at the end of the war's first week, for meetings at Camp David, the presidential retreat.
In Umm Qasr, Marines assigned the job of subduing Iraq's southernmost cities exchanged fire with hundreds of black-hooded Fedayeen. The group is Saddam Hussein's fiercely loyal militia of young recruits who have positioned themselves among civilians while taking potshots at allied troops.
"It felt great when we came in, with the crowds waiting and smiling. Now you wonder what's behind those smiles and what lies behind those crowds," said Lt. Col. Michael Belcher of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "It's tough to win over their hearts and minds now, when you have to hold them at arm's length."
Allied leaders dismiss the group as a ruthless bunch of killers, but for now they are holding up the securing of Basra, Umm Qasr and Nasiriyah. The coalition needs to secure Umm Qasr to deliver promised humanitarian aid that is aboard ships in the Gulf. Officials say the shipments will be unloaded later this week at the earliest.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the allied commander, held a press conference yesterday, the day after his troops suffered the worst casualties in the brief war.
"Progress towards our objectives has been rapid and in some cases dramatic," Gen. Franks declared in Doha, Qatar.
His pronouncements came despite reports from journalists traveling with Army units that the trip north was being slowed by sandstorms and by Iraqi paramilitary firing at soldiers from the cover of civilian populations.
As for the Fedayeen, the four-star general said the guerrillas would not alter his plan to get ground forces to Baghdad in days, not weeks.
"We have intentionally bypassed enemy formations to include paramilitary and the Fedayeen," Gen. Franks said. "So you can expect that our cleanup operations are going to be ongoing for across the days in the future."
Some Marines reported that they were running low on ammunition and a resupply unit ran low on drinking water. Asked about shortages, an allied spokesman in Doha said, "This is an operational question which involves the security of our troops. Therefore we cannot answer it."
The Marines' job is complicated by the presence of the Fedayeen.
"We've known that this group was being dispersed throughout regular army forces in an attempt to control allegiance to the Iraqi regime," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We believe from prisoner-of-war debriefings that the Fedayeen may be preventing a number of regular soldiers from surrendering, giving the soldiers a choice of either fighting or being shot in the back if they attempt to surrender. This act is in keeping with the despicable actions of the Iraqi regime."
The coalition initially thought the city was secured, but fierce firefights broke out over the weekend and troops had to call in air strikes and reinforcements.
In an allied war strategy built on the speed at which ground forces will reach Baghdad, the spearheading 3rd Infantry Divisions became stalled momentarily yesterday by blinding sandstorms 60 miles south of the capital.
In the same area, the Army's 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment sent AH-64 Apache helicopters against the "Medina" Division in the first engagement by a ground force unit against the Republican Guard.
Apaches fired Hellfire missiles at several Iraqi armored vehicles and took ground fire. Many choppers returned to base nicked and punctured by small-arms munitions and rockets.
"At this point … we have not gotten in direct firefight with Republican Guard forces," said Gen. McChrystal. "But they have been engaged with air forces and now with attack helicopters."
One Apache did not return and was videotaped by Iraqis as it lay in a field near Raballah, south of Baghdad.
Iraqi state television yesterday showed two uninjured men in cream-colored pilots' overalls who it said were the crew of the Apache. Personal effects of the men were shown, including a Texas driver's license and a card from the Fort Hood National Bank. The two men did not speak to the camera.
The Pentagon identified the two captured aviators as Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga. Both men were stationed at Fort Hood.
Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri said Baghdad would let the International Committee of the Red Cross visit the prisoners, as the Geneva Convention demands.
"I can assure you that our religion, our customs, our social values, order us to protect those prisoners and to protect their life," he told the Associated Press.
The 11th and 3rd infantry fall under the command of Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the commander of 5th Corps based in Europe, who moves north in an armored command center as he directs various land battles.
The helicopter assault is a small prelude to what is expected to be a giant tank battle for control of Baghdad once the 3rd Infantry Division moves into position. The unit will be augmented on the west by the 101st Airborne Division, whose fleet of attack helicopters and 16,000 infantrymen may hit Baghdad from several directions.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force is driving east of the 3rd Infantry Division, toward areas southeast of Baghdad where it could encounter Republican Guard units guarding Al-Kut.
Gen. McChrystal described the Republican Guard Medina division protecting areas south of Baghdad as "one of the best of the Republican Guard divisions, one of the most powerful of the Republican Guard divisions."
"I am sure that it has been degraded significantly in the last 48 hours or so," Gen. McChrystal said. "I couldn't judge its current strength, but it is a linchpin to the consistency of the Republican Guard defense."
The allied strategy is to soften up the Guard with bombardment day and night by Navy and Air Force jets, and attack helicopters such as those from the 11th Regiment. The Army also launched artillery barrages into the spread out Medina tanks units.
The intense helicopter attack showed that Saddam's best ground units would fight to defend the capital and the Ba'ath Party regime.
CBS News reported that the Iraqis had drawn a red line on the map around Baghdad. Once U.S. troops cross it, CBS says, the Republican Guards are authorized to use chemical weapons.
This is the stage in American war doctrine that air planners set up "kill boxes" on the Iraqi desert and then send groups of jet fighters and heavy bombers into each one to try to destroy tanks, armored vehicles and troops.
Jets are hitting targets in the south and also north of Baghdad where Republican Guard units defend major cities, as well as Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
A senior Pentagon official said that during the past 36 hours, more the half the total air strikes were directed at Iraq's six Republican Guard divisions.
The allies also have bombed two Special Republican Guard Divisions that protect Baghdad and the Iraqi leadership, including Saddam.
The Pentagon believes that around-the-clock bombings against command posts and communication nodes are isolating Saddam's regime from his fielded forces.
In four days of intensive bombings, the allies have dropped 2,000 precision-guided munitions. The number is large, but far from prewar news reports that 3,000 would be released in the conflict's first 24 hours.
When orders from senior officers arrive at Iraqi units, they are not always followed.
"We are seeing evidence that orders that are being issued are not being executed in many cases," Gen. McChrystal said. "They may be received, they may not be executed. And that, to me, indicates a weakening of their command and coercion system."
The allies are warning units to be leery of approaching Iraqis, in light of Sunday's killing of more than four Marines who were attacked by "surrendering" troops.
"In regards to the rules of engagement, I don't think they will change," Gen. McChrystal said. "I don't think you can change the basic humanity of American soldiers. Clearly, they will be careful, as they always are. But I think it's important that we make it easy and safe for Iraqi soldiers to surrender. And they must feel that. They must feel that they can surrender without fear, and then be treated well, which is exactly what I'm sure we'll continue to do."

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