- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2003

KUWAIT CITY, March 27 (UPI) — Plan C — or maybe Plan D — for the Iraq war went into operation Thursday morning, as coalition commanders scrambled to meet Iraqi counter-attacks moving out of Baghdad and south of Basra. The counter-attacks were swiftly hammered by coalition air power, recovering from the two days of near blindness imposed by the driving sandstorms.

As the dust cleared over the Euphrates River crossings at An Najaf and An Nasiriyah Thursday, the scale of this tactical U.S. victory became clear. In a defensive battle against Iraqi raids that tried to take advantage of the sandstorm cover that grounded the U.S. helicopter gun ships, U.S. troops reported counting "hundreds of Iraqi dead."

And south of Basra, where an Iraqi armored column of some 80 tanks and armored personnel carriers was "almost entirely destroyed" by allied guns and air power Wednesday evening, the firepower superiority of the coalition forces was again on display. Thursday morning, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards outside Basra claimed to have knocked out another 14 Iraqi tanks making what a British military spokesman called "a suicide charge" from the city.

Now that the weather has cleared and the gun ships are flying again, the flat terrain of the fertile plains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is likely to become a killing ground for the Republican Guard divisions trying to hold the approaches to Baghdad.

But in strategic terms, yet another major change was under way at the Coalition Command Headquarters of U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks in Qatar. It is a change that suggests that the initial hopes of a quick, successful war are giving way to a longer, more deliberate campaign to take Baghdad.

Plan A, for a two-pronged attack on Iraq from north and south was ditched when the Turks refused passage to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. Plan B was the abortive attempt to end the way at a single blow by decapitating the Baghdad regime with the bombing raid a week ago. Plan C was the swoop on Baghdad, the flanking drive up the west bank of the Euphrates to shock the Iraqis into an acceptance of their defeat.

Not one of those first three plans has succeeded, in part because the sandstorms slowed the coalition advance and in part because of the guerilla raids on the long and vulnerable supply lines of the U.S. 3rd Division who had swept forward almost 300 miles in three days.

Plan D is now under way. It began with a serious opening of the northern front with the air drop of 1,000 parachutists from the U.S. 173rd Airborne brigade on the airstrip at Harir, near the town of Bashur on the Kurdish occupied zone. Once the airfield was secure, C-17 military transports flew in the rest of the brigade and began flying in Bradley armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons.

The 1st Battalion of the 63rd Armored Brigade (normally based in Germany) was scheduled to be flown into Harir later Thursday to provide armored support. The deliberate publicity given to these movements by the allied command suggested that they wanted the Iraqi commanders to know — and worry — about the serious U.S. forces gathering to their north. The Iraqis will have to think long and hard before taking Republican Guard units from the north to reinforce the defense of Baghdad.

The second part of Plan D is the arrival of the first reinforcements of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. It will be a week before this powerful unit can take part in the battle, and their tanks, armored vehicles and their other heavy equipment are still making their way around the Arabian peninsula after a long and fruitless wait off the Turkish coast. But the allied commanders now have a strategic reserve, and the combat infantry that may be required if the urban battle of Baghdad begins.

Military sources in Kuwait say that the U.S. Marines took 20 casualties, none dead, in the defense of An Nasiriyah overnight. Thursday morning, the Marines sent loudspeaker trucks into the city of some 200,000 people, telling the civilians to pack up and leave. The initial rules of engagement requiring allied troops to avoid damaging civilian areas appears to have been modified, after the use of civilian cover by Iraqi guerrilla-type fedayeen.

The allies have to hold An Nasiriyah and its vital bridges over the Euphrates, an essential supply route. Further north up the Euphrates at An Najaf, the 3rd Infantry have also engaged in bitter and close quarter fighting to hold their bridges. But that period of close fighting may be coming to an end as the weather clears.

Strikingly, the dark predictions of heavy allied casualties in urban fighting have not been borne out in An Najaf and An Nasiriyah and Basra. Iraqi casualties have been heavy, but U.S. and British casualties have been relatively light. Group Capt. Al Lockwood, the British spokesman, said that the two attempts at armored breakout from Basra had been defeated "without any loss on our side."

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