Republican Guard Units May Still Pose Threat As Units Race
Apr 03, 2003 - 0312 GMT
U.S. forces have pressed on in their advance on Baghdad, passing the cities of Karbala and An Najaf. They also reportedly have bypassed large numbers of scattered or isolated Republican Guard forces. Whether or not these Iraqi troops pose a continued threat to U.S. forces will depend on the accuracy of U.S. intelligence regarding their condition, resilience of Iraqi command and control, the training they have received in small unit action and the continued availability of coalition air cover.
Over the past 24 hours, the U.S. military has resumed its advance on Baghdad, and some lead units reportedly have probed to within 15 miles of the southern outskirts of the capital. The advance followed substantial bombardment of up to five Republican Guard units south of Baghdad. Iraqi units have put up limited resistance to the U.S. advance, and most of the surviving Republican Guard troops have been dispersed or bypassed. The question now is whether those bypassed units can regroup and/or carry out attacks behind U.S. front lines.
U.S. aircraft and helicopters have demolished large numbers of Republican Guard armor and equipment south of Baghdad, reportedly even reducing the sortie rate by AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on April 2 for want of targets. Air strikes by strategic bombers, tactical fighters, and helicopters have effectively destroyed two Republican Guard divisions -- according to CENTCOM -- the 2nd Al Medina Armored Division near Karbala and the 5th Baghdad Mechanized Infantry Division near Al Kut. Pentagon officials were quick to clarify that the two divisions have not been eliminated, but rather that their combat effectiveness has been reduced to near zero.
As U.S. troops move past these and other Republican Guard units, the first question is how accurate is the U.S. bomb damage assessment? When U.S. units began to probe into territory believed to be held by Republican Guards, the lack of resistance they encountered could mean the units had been destroyed, or that they were intact but declining combat, or that they had withdrawn, or that they were never there in the first place.
Sources in the German intelligence community report that the four Republican Guard Divisions that reportedly moved south a few days ago in fact remained in their positions on the outskirts of Baghdad and Tikrit. These would include the 7th Adnan Mechanized Infantry Division that coalition aircraft reportedly attacked as the unit redeployed from Tikrit to the northwestern outskirts of Baghdad. U.S. sources categorically reject this claim, and confirm broadcast reports of the Adnan division's movement.
The other three units would be the 1st Hammurabi and 6th Nebuchadnezzar Mechanized Infantry Divisions, which reportedly reinforced the Medina Division near Karbala, and the Al Nedaa Armored Division, which Iraqi opposition sources repeatedly claimed had advanced to reinforce Al Kut. U.S. troops reportedly have captured Iraqi fighters and engaged equipment around Karbala bearing the insignia of the Nebuchadnezzar Division, which contradicts German claims. However, it is possible that only small detachments of the division were involved, or that the Iraqi military has begun to manipulate uniforms and markings to confuse coalition intelligence regarding the nature of Iraqi deployments.
German intelligence sources also claim that only half of the Al Medina Division remained in Karbala -- the 14th Mechanized Brigade and an armor brigade, possibly the 2nd. The remainder of the division is reportedly in the outskirts of Baghdad. The sources claim that the Republican Guard units in Karbala have suffered few losses due to coalition bombardments, because they are entrenched within the city itself. Coalition bombing and shelling focused on empty positions or decoys outside the city.
Also, U.S. and German sources concur that there was no ground battle in Karbala. Rather, units in Karbala traded fire with U.S. 3rd Infantry Division for three hours as it swept around the city toward the Euphrates River bridge at Al Musayyib. To the best of our knowledge, Karbala remains encircled by a Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, but it has not been swept of Iraqi forces. The relative accuracy of the U.S. and German intelligence will not be tested until the Iraqi units in Karbala surrender or U.S. forces move into the city.
Regarding action further to the east, Russian military intelligence sources report that there was no battle between the Republican Guard Baghdad Division and U.S. Marines at Al Kut, not because the division had been destroyed, but because it feared destruction by U.S. airpower and therefore remained entrenched in the city. U.S. officials have indicated that Marines did not take Al Kut or the bridges in the city, but rather took a bridge further to the west, probably at An Numaniyah.
The Russian sources report the Baghdad Division did suffer some losses due to heavy bombing, but was not destroyed and remains combat capable. Moreover, it is possible that only a portion of the division is entrenched in Al Kut, while others have been deployed elsewhere, perhaps Baghdad. Though not inherently confirming anything, it is interesting to note that the Baghdad Division commander appeared on Iraqi television April 2 to deny his unit had been destroyed.
Russian and German sources are only as good as their collection methods and their interpretation of the data. However, U.S. sources are affected by similar constraints. The course of battle will determine which, if any, were correct. However, there is clearly room for some question regarding the deployment and status of the Iraqi Republican Guard.
U.S. sources report that the Republican Guard units south of Baghdad have declined to engage U.S. troops and are engaged in a strategic withdrawal into the outskirts of Baghdad, ahead of advancing U.S. troops. Iraqi Army units reportedly are reinforcing them at the same time. Coalition airpower is concentrating its attacks on these retreating units and their reinforcements, with the primary goal of preventing their reaching cover in the city.
U.S. forces reportedly are racing toward Baghdad, despite having planned for a slow, methodical advance. Given public expressions of extreme caution from CENTCOM, it is unlikely that they are merely advancing with blind enthusiasm upon meeting little resistance. Rather, they may be trying to get between Baghdad and the retreating Republican Guard.
Assuming for the moment that the U.S. sources are 100 percent accurate, and two divisions of the Republican Guard have been shattered, and U.S. troops are bypassing scattered, isolated, and retreating units, the next question is whether they will pose a threat behind U.S. lines. There are three factors that will affect this -- command and control, training and U.S. air superiority.
Stratfor's earlier report suggesting that degradation in the Iraqi television signal could indicate a deeper problem for Iraqi command and control was apparently premature. Iraqi television continues to recover from air strikes, though not as quickly as earlier in the war. And U.S. sources report that, though likewise degraded, Iraqi command and control remains intact. Baghdad continues to retain contact with Iraqi units outside the capital and, as the ring draws tighter, telecommunications will become less important for sustaining defense.
Training will come into play for units caught behind coalition lines and out of communication with Baghdad. Fedayeen forces have demonstrated their tenacity at harassing small unit actions. Some of those identified as Fedayeen, for example those in Umm Qasr, later were identified as company-level or smaller Republican Guard units. It seems, therefore, that the Republican Guard has been trained in isolated small unit operations, rather than the brigade- and division-level maneuver they were formerly known to prefer. Interestingly, it appears that resistance along the Euphrates has been waged by battalion sized Iraqi army units, suggesting that at least some of the training has trickled down to them.
U.S. troops nearing Baghdad are in a precarious position. If the bypassed Republican Guard units are motivated and trained to carry out independent counterattacks behind U.S. lines, they could threaten already strained supply lines.
The United States does not have many troops to spare at this time for securing rear areas and rounding up Iraqi soldiers. Already, the 101st Airborne Division is tied down securing An Najaf and the surrounding areas, while the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team is fighting around As Samawah. And latest reports indicate the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit is on cleanup duty in An Nasiriyah. This is a substantial portion of U.S. combat forces devoted to securing supply lines. The pressure will ease when elements of the 4th Infantry Division or other units entering the theater begin deploying into Iraq, but for the next few days there is a risk of supply interdiction.
That leaves two issues: Iraqi motivation to counterattack and the availability of U.S. airpower to destroy any Iraqi troops who dare leave defensive positions. U.S. forces have thwarted two Iraqi attempts to attack lead elements of the 3rd Infantry Division at the Al Musayyib bridgehead. In one instance, the Iraqis were able to plant charges that damaged the bridge. At least one Iraqi tank was involved in the counterattacks. These Iraqi attacks answer the question of Iraqi motivation. At least some units are willing to risk air strikes and attack.
It also raises some questions about U.S. tactical intelligence and airpower on the outskirts of Baghdad. Iraqis were able to approach the bridge twice, and U.S. forces resorted to tank and artillery to repel the attacks. There was no explanation of the absence of U.S. aircraft at the two engagements. U.S. forces are now coming into an area that is highly urbanized and still protected by substantial air defenses. Tracking the movements of small Iraqi units will be difficult. Interdicting them will be more difficult.
CENTCOM must now ensure that ongoing air strikes prevent Republican Guard units
from joining Special Republican Guard units defending Baghdad, or lead U.S.
units may need to pull back and await the major reinforcements still pouring