Basra offers a lesson on taking Baghdad
By Michael R. Gordon
FIRST ARMORED DIVISION HEADQUARTERS, Southern Iraq -- The British thrust into the center of Basra is a signal achievement in its own right. But it is also important for the larger allied campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and win the battle for Baghdad.
Allied commanders hope that the capture of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, will be a vivid demonstration that the government is fast losing control of major population centers and that the fate of Mr. Hussein is sealed. That, they hope, will encourage resistance to Mr. Hussein in Iraq, including in Baghdad.
The capture of the city may also offer tactical lessons for the American efforts to dislodge the government in the Iraqi capital, where defenders are still actively resisting American soldiers and marines.
The forces defending Baghdad are taking a battering at the hands of the Americans, but are trying to fight back and today succeeded in laying mines in front of one of the Third Infantry Division's positions.
A major British assault on Basra was not part of the original allied plan. The initial thought was that British forces would protect the right flanks for an American advance that would head north to Baghdad. Basra and other southern cities were to be bypassed.
The allied forces would enter them as "liberators" as Iraqis welcomed the American and British forces.
But that strategy was supplanted after it became clear that Mr. Hussein's paramilitary and security forces were maintaining a tight grip on the cities that precluded the Shiite uprisings the allies were hoping for. Mr. Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, has often persecuted the Shiites, most notably after they rose against his rule in 1991, after the first gulf war.
There have, for example, been public executions of Baath Party officials who have been accused of not being sufficiently stalwart in overseeing the city's defenses, British officials say. The fact that paramilitary forces were using the cities as a base to strike allied supply lines also put pressure on the allies to engage in urban warfare throughout the south.
The British assault on Basra has been patient and methodical. British forces started with limited raids to attack the government's leaders and its mechanisms of control in Basra. As the fighting progressed, some of the raids resulted in so-called lodgments — permanent presences — on the outskirts of the city. Gradually, these expanded to the eastern side of the Shatt al Basra waterway.
As the British moved in and out of the city, they developed contacts and gained intelligence, which they put to use by calling in airstrikes.
The Baath Party headquarters was turned into rubble by a satellite guided bomb.
On Saturday, the British called in an airstrike on the home, in Basra, of Ali Hassan al-Majid, whom Mr. Hussein put in charge of the southern part of the country.
A cousin of the Iraqi president, Mr. Majid is known as Chemical Ali for his role in directing the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1990's.
Today, British officers said they had obtained good intelligence that Mr. Majid was in the house when it was bombed and is believed to be dead. Senior Basra police officers also told the British that Mr. Majid was killed in the blast.
Throughout the attacks, the British have tried to win over the city's population. British forces controlled important roads leading in and out of the city, but did not impose a blockade. The residents of Basra were allowed to leave and bring back food. And the British forces sought to defend Iraqis who challenged Mr. Hussein.
At one point, Iraqi forces loyal to the government fired mortars at regular army forces that were abandoning the fight. The British responded with an artillery barrage.
Finally, today, after two weeks of limited attacks, British commanders concluded that the government's resistance was brittle and that it was time to begin a major attack.
The British attacked on several fronts. Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Royal Fusiliers and the Black Watch pushed into the city. The British forces were supported by Marine Corps Cobra helicopter gunships. Three Commando, a unit of the Royal Marines that has been operating at Fao, pushed in from the south.
All told, some 10,000 British troops were involved in the attack. Britain's 16th Air Assault division, which has been protecting the Rumalia oil fields, have also extended their operation northwest toward Highway 6, a major route out of Basra. By evening, British officers expressed confidence that their attack would be successful. Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the allied land war commander, visited the British headquarters here today to be briefed on the attacks.
Maj. Gen. Robin Brims, the British land war commander, briefed him on a plan, which foresees the consolidation of allied control over the city in a matter of days and then a British push north on Highway 6.
Such a northern attack out of Basra would confront several severely weakened Iraqi Army units. The goal would be their surrender or destruction.
Such a push, it is hoped, could encourage Shiite uprisings in other southern towns. It would also give allied forces firm control of a "Scud Box," or a region north of Basra that the Iraqis have used to launch surface-to-surface missiles at American forces and other targets in Kuwait.
This strategic prize has not come without a price. British soldiers said that the main resistance was coming from the paramilitary units. The British today estimated that there were 400 irregular Iraqi forces still fighting hard.
"We have been building pressure all week with aggressive raids and trying to create the right conditions," a British officer said. "We have now punched into Basra in a concrete way that we had not done before. Some of the battle groups have met some resistance from irregulars. We will continue to eradicate the Baath Party and the irregulars. We will consolidate in there and this will be a very good thing to achieve before Baghdad."