Military War Diary


19 March 2003

Stalled by Sandstorm

Tuesday night, March 18, clouds of gritty flying desert sand put the hundreds of thousands of allied troops poised on the southern and western front lines for the order to advance into Iraq on the defensive. The flight crews of warplanes and helicopters, the tanks crews and the soldiers – on "Black Stage One", meaning to hold protective suits and gear ready for immediate use – were pre-empted, though not by Saddam Hussein. They had been caught by the first sandstorm of the season, a murky cloud blanketing a key area from Kuwait up to Baghdad.

The region will be prone to these storms from now until the first burning days of summer. Tuesday evening, US and British commanders discovered that the tanks to have rumbled forward in a vast column on Basra in the south and Baghdad further up in the center, had been stalled by grainy sand that gets into everything. The helicopters for flying the bulk of the assault troops to their target zones on three fronts were unable to take off and, worse, their engines and electronic instruments were clogged with the insidious sand.

This was the main reason for the decision by the allied war command to hold back the advance until the weather cleared, further frustrating the already restive troops.

DEBKAfile’s sources report that military weather forecasters promise the sandstorm will blow over Wednesday, leaving three to four days of clear skies before the next oppressive cloud of dust and sand descends on the area of attack.

Northern Front

Because of the bad weather in the south and west, the only real movement Tuesday occurred on the northern front. Following the signing of their secret accord with the United States, the Turks opened up their air space to American transports and fighter-bombers. Despite vehement denials from Turkey, our sources report that at long last the Americans were able to fly into Turkey troops of the 4th Cavalry Division who had been standing by in Fort Hood, Texas, waiting for the Turks to make up their minds. Some of the division’s troops may be discharged first at Bulgarian and Romanian bases, making their way overland to Turkey and thence into northern Iraq. Tuesday, March 18, US freighters were able finally to enter Eskenderun port and discharge the 4th Division’s heavy tanks.

This turn of the wheel is momentous. It enables the Americans to deploy armored forces on the northern front, which was in grave doubt until the Turks came round.

Another two key developments on the northern front:

The United States, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish chiefs and Turkomen leaders forged a deal permitting Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq. More details are expected on the size of the Turkish force and the extent of its penetration for setting up positions. This was the quid pro quo for Ankara’s consent to five Kurdish brigades of the two main militias, the PUK and PDK, entering the oil city of Kirkuk with the American forces.

Here too the delay exacted a price. The highways of Kurdistan were blocked with many thousands of Kurds fleeing north into the hills out of their cities for fear of Iraqi army reprisals, including chemical and biological attacks on civilians. This exodus was bound to slow the military advance in the north.

IST 16:00

Dire threat

Saddam’s eldest son rejected President George W. Bush’s ultimatum Monday night for the Iraqi ruler and his sons to go into exile within 48 hours or face “military conflict launched at a time of our choosing.”

The loose presidential phrasing enabled the White House to consider advancing the date of the full-scale offensive against Iraq before the 48 hours expired – particularly after the brutal threat that accompanied Uday Hussein’s rejection. “The wives and mothers of those Americans who will fight us will cry blood, not tears,” he said. “They should not imagine that they will have a safe spot inside the land of Iraq or outside it.” Hussein’s son tauntingly urged Bush to leave his office in America with his family…”

Further incentive for advancing military action came from the rising concern in the Pentagon that Iraqi forces may attack the invasion force poised in Kuwait with chemical shells – whether as a pre-emptive or to deter allied troops by demonstrating what lies ahead - not only for the invaders but for America’s Middle East allies if the invasion goes forward. A chemical or biological attack against Israel would serve the additional purpose of drawing Israel into retaliation and thus upsetting US war planes.

Israel Goes on Alert

Wednesday, March 19, Israel’s military, police and home front go on full war alert after the Israeli cabinet holds a special meeting on the Iraq crisis. All the Patriot anti-air anti-missile batteries have been deployed. The partial call-up of tens of thousands of reserves continues. Tuesday, the population was told to keep personal gas mask kits close at hand at all times.

The reason why Israelis have been receiving mixed signals about how and when to prepare for the coming war is, DEBKAfile reveals, is that Washington had decided not to give Jerusalem advance notice of D-Day. Israel is also in the dark about American operational war plans. This no Israeli in authority wants to admit. The prime minister’s office, the defense minister and the general staff are therefore improvising as best they can on the strength of Israel intelligence evaluations. That is why the Israeli public has not been forewarned about the hazard of biological and chemical terror attack, in the way that President Bush warned the American public Monday night and British nationals were advised to leave Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in view of the threat of biological and chemical terror attack. So far, only the Pentagon has explicitly spoken of Israel as a prime target for an Iraqi pre-emptive attack.

Israelis were finally advised to hang up their nylon sheeting and masking tape Tuesday night – but not yet to enter the sealed spaces or open their gas-mask kits.

According to our Washington sources, the Bush administration is striving to distance Israel from the Iraq conflict to an even greater extent than did the first Bush government in 1991 Gulf War. It is beginning to look as though Israel may have been placed in a serious quandary with tied hands as a result of prime minister Ariel Sharon’s directives to the government and military to lend the United States their all-out cooperation.