Battle for Tigris, Euphrates Rivers of S. Iraq

by DEBKAfile

November 9, 2002


Both the US-UK-Iranian alliance and Iraq have in the last two weeks beefed up their elite units in southeastern Iraq. The US-led assault force has two primary missions:

A. Within the 60 days assigned to the UN inspectors for completing their report, the troops aim to assert military control over all southeastern Iraq up to the Iranian frontier including the Hawr al-Hammar lake and marshes. They will encircle the great oilfields of Khozistan, but stay outside. This mirrors the situation established earlier in northern Iraq, where US, British, Jordanian, Turkish and Iranian special forces present since April have taken control of much of the region, but came to a standstill at the gates of the two oil cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

US-led allied forces are under orders to skirt Iraq’s northern and southern oilfields for two reasons: One, their capture would nullify the UN oil-for-food program that requires Iraq to pump oil according to a quota. Two, it could goad Saddam to extreme reprisals such as using his weapons of mass destruction against the assault troops or blowing up wells.

B. When completed, the attacking force’s capture of southeast Iraq, on top of its extensive control of territory in the north and west (along the Jordanian border), will transform the political-military balance. US and allied forces will have caged Saddam Hussein, his family, the ruling Baath and the armed forces in the central region, cornering them in the cities of Baghdad and Tirkit and cutting them off from access to the oilfields. Saddam will be dispossessed of his sole source of revenue for keeping the Iraqi army fighting.

These military gains would open up two options for Bush and his generals:

1. To be ready to lunge at Saddam’s regime centers from three directions and bring the war to its final, decisive stage with no further procrastination, should Iraq fail to comply with the new resolution or the UN go back to foot-dragging.

2. To be able to take the northern and southern oilfields, thereby isolating Saddam Hussein and his support group. The regime’s days would then be numbered. It would be bound to cave in under internal pressure or military coup - or both. The US president indicated that this would be his first preference when he stressed that the military option was his last.

At present, the fighting in the southeastern region is focused at these points: Halafiyah, northeast of Al Amarah, and Musallan further to the north. Control of these two towns will trap the Iraqi Al Amarah force in a pocket. But even more important, the Tigris River widens out at Musallan for its journey north through the capital. From this riverside town, American units can travel upriver into the heart of Baghdad without having to fight their way past Iraqi land units.

American and allied forces are also battling for the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris at Al Muzaryriah. From there, the Euphrates River heads west, reaching the two Shiite towns of Najaf and Karbala before heading towards Baghdad.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report American deliveries in the combat arena of advanced river-crossing equipment, speedboats, hydrofoils, portable bridges – transportable in retractable sections on truck beds - and amphibian craft, for transporting large-scale forces and heavy equipment across marshland and water. Some of the equipment is going through Iran.

Of interest in this context is the comment made on November 3 to the Los Angeles Times by retired Lt. Gen James Terry Scott, former commander of the US Army’s Special Operations:

“At the end of the day, there will have to be equipment moved across the Euphrates, because if you want to control Iraq, you have to have forces on both sides of the river. It will have to be over something that we can construct, because Iraq just doesn’t have big enough existing bridges to move that kind of heavy equipment. And if it does, Saddam Hussein is going to make sure they get blown up.”

One Iraqi response to heightened US-UK-Iranian military activity in the southeast has been to set fire to the marshes. The flames seething under the surface have produced belching black clouds that are carried by wind south and east to threaten an ecological disaster on a scale recalling the Kuwaiti oil well fires Saddam set in 1991.

The black haze limits visibility for US spy satellites and reconnaissance planes tracking Iraqi troop movements, impedes US-UK aircraft and helicopter bombing sorties against Iraqi forces and obstructs airborne support for the US-led ground forces in the field.

Our sources in Tehran report that the black smoke has reached Iran’s southern oilfields and is slowing down production.