Decisive battle shows plan being carried out flawlessly


Michael Kelly

Decisive battle shows plan being carried out flawlessly


National Journal

Saturday, April 5, 2003

East of the Euphrates River, Iraq — Near the crest of the bridge across the Euphrates River that Task Force 3-69 Armor of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division seized Wednesday afternoon was a body, which lay twisted from its fall.

He had been an old man, judging from his blood-matted gray hair, and he was poor and not a regular soldier, judging from his clothes. He was lying on his back, not far from one of several burning skeletons of the small trucks that Saddam Hussein’s willing and unwilling irregulars employed. The tanks and Bradleys and Humvees and bulldozers and rocket launchers, and all the rest of the massive stuff that makes up the American Army on the march, rumbled passed him, pushing on.

On the western side of the bridge, Lt. Col. Ernest “Rock” Marcone, commander of Task Force 3-69, stood in the sand by the side of the road, smoking a cigar and drinking a cup of coffee. Marcone’s soldiers say he deeply likes to win, and he seemed quietly happy.

At 2 o’clock that morning, Marcone had led his battalion into the assault with two objectives, both critical to the 3rd Infantry’s drive to Baghdad. The first was to seize the Karbala Gap, a narrow piece of flat land between a lake and a river that offers a direct and unpopulated passageway to this bridge. The second objective was the bridge itself, the foothold across the Euphrates, the last natural obstacle between the division and Baghdad. Marcone’s tanks, infantry and artillery, supported by Air Force bombers and the division’s Apache Blackhawk helicopters, had taken the Karbala Gap by 7 a.m. and had taken the bridge by 4:20 p.m.

“This was not the battle, because that battle will be for the final destruction of the Republican Guard and of the regime of Saddam Hussein,” Marcone said. “But this was the decisive battle to achieve that end. We now hold the critical ground through which the rest of the division can pass to engage and destroy the Republican Guard.”

As Marcone was speaking, a faint whistling sounded. At once, everyone yelled: “Incoming!” Some threw themselves flat on their stomachs, some ducked into armored tracked vehicles, some crouched by the side of the track. The mortar rounds fell with a small dull boom across the road, and after a few moments, the men all stood up and resumed their tasks.

“Made me spill my coffee,” said Marcone. “Bastards.” He sat down on the track hatch and picked up the thread of the story of his day. In the 10 minutes or so it took him to tell the bare bones of it, he was interrupted twice more by incoming mortars, and twice more picked up the story. The story is instructive, because it is not only of Task Force 3-69 Armor’s fighting virtues, but of the virtues of a plan of battle that has been misunderstood and maligned, and which has now come together — a bit late, but as planned, flawlessly.

Hussein, of course, knew the Americans coming from Kuwait would have to cross the Euphrates. But he did not know where the crossing would be made. The American forces’ plan, drafted and revised and revised again under intense pressure in the field, centered on keeping the regime in confusion on this one great question.

There were surprises. No one anticipated the degree to which the regime would be able, using guerrilla tactics, to harass, and for a brief while stall, the offensive in the south.

But the basic structure of the plan never changed. It was to employ repeated feints to deceive the enemy as to the true direction of the assault north. This would force him to redeploy his key forces away from the Karbala Gap, while exposing his moving troops and his artillery to a devastating air campaign.

On Tuesday, after the division’s 2nd Brigade conducted a successful two-day feint at the bridge across the Euphrates at the town of Hindiyah, and after days of increasingly intense targeted bombing and counterbattery artillery had reduced the Iraqi artillery in the area of the gap to no more than two battalions, Gen. Buford Blount, the commander of the 3rd Infantry, approved the assault for the following morning.

As the main brunt of the assault — two tank companies and an infantry company — began to move out toward the gap, the task force’s 3-7 Infantry company moved east in one last feint, threatening the city of Karbala, to fix any Baath Party irregular forces in place there. The main assault, three columns of armored and soft-skinned vehicles, made its great, loud, dusty way across sand tracks through the gap.

Weeks before, the battle for the Karbala Gap had been expected to be fierce. The narrow passage was a good place for the Republican Guard to hold the line. But misdirection and bombing had done great work of attrition. The night before the assault, Marcone had said, he expected to find little resistance left at the gap. And he found little — a small and lightly armed force of what appeared to be regular army troops, possibly border police.

The few defenders abandoned the one weapon they had that could have done any serious damage, a battery of 60mm mortars. “Some of them put up a fight, but honestly, it was like they were firing flintlock weapons,” said Capt. Jason Freit, the assistant operations officer for Task Force 3-69. “They would fire one shot, drop their weapons and try to run away.”

The task force took 22 prisoners at the gap, killed no one, suffered no casualties and pushed on as fast as three columns of armor can move, which is not fast at all, toward the bridge.

There, they found the first organized, coherent and serious military opposition in the war to date: what Marcone judges to be two battalions’ worth of infantry, one of irregulars on the western side and one that he thinks might have been Republican Guard — “very well- armed, well-groomed.” The troops had rigged the bridge to explode and had established what Marcone said were excellent defensive positions on the eastern side, going back several kilometers.

But none of this affected the outcome or even much slowed the advance. “First, we destroyed all the near-side forces,” said Marcone, “then, with artillery and aviation, we destroyed much of the far side. The 3-7 crossed the river in boats, six of them, with engineers, to deal with the demo (explosives). That was followed by an armored assault by three companies, two tanks and one infantry.”

The fight lasted only several hours but was intense, said Marcone. “We took no prisoners,” he said. “They fought until they died.”

There were no American fatalities. By full dusk, the sporadic mortar fire had ceased, and everything was quiet except for an occasional bit of light-arms fire in the farm fields beyond the bridgehead.

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