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Iraq

Iraq's shuddering collapse

By TOM DRURY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003

A battlefield anecdote: On their first foray into Baghdad, U.S. Army troops captured an Iraqi colonel. He was shocked. His superiors had told him coalition forces were still 100 miles away.

The colonel's confusion told the story of the war as it broke sharply in the coalition's favor. Iraq could not stop the corrosive effect of U.S. and British raids on Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere, and its military leaders could not acknowledge the obvious and accumulating signs of pending defeat.

Baghdad fell anyway, fell with the thud of the statue of Saddam Hussein hitting the dirt in Firdos Square, pulled down by ecstatic citizens and a U.S. armored vehicle on Wednesday.

Also reported taken from Hussein loyalists were Basra, Karbala, Mosul and Kirkuk. Coalition forces held these cities to the extent that anyone did, but reports of looting, violence and public health concerns began to overshadow the triumph of liberation. In Baghdad, even Al Kindi hospital was reported to have been looted, of beds and electrical fittings.

Like his statue, Hussein himself was not there anymore. Some thought he was dead, killed by four tons of satellite-guided bombs dropped on Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood. Others speculated about an injured Hussein on his way to Syria (a rumor rejected by U.S. officials) or escaping to his hometown of Tikrit.

Wherever he was, Baghdad collapsed with a swiftness that stunned the world. It had been feared that the regime and its armed forces could put up a bitter and costly fight in the capital. There was talk of prolonged street combat, of toxic weapons that might be unleashed once the Americans had closed in.

Even when the Republican Guard seemed to evaporate from the southern defensive perimeter, allowing infantry and Marines to close on Baghdad, it was believed that elements of the theoretically elite force might have dropped back into the city for a last stand. At week's end there was still talk of a last stand, but now it might come in Tikrit, 90 miles north of Baghdad. Or not.

"The game is over," Iraq's U.N. ambassador Mohammed al-Douri told reporters outside his New York apartment. "I hope the peace will prevail."

The war, though, was not over. The Bush administration, while praising the troops and savoring the vindication of its war plan, emphasized the point. A third of the country remained outside coalition control, a suicide bomber blew himself up in eastern Baghdad Thursday, badly wounding four American soldiers, and intense fighting was reported at a manufacturing compound near the Syrian border.

But the overnight collapse of decades of brutal government in Baghdad had already turned the question to the next phase: who will run Iraq now and what will keep it from breaking apart in factional fighting.

Ground forces

No doubt there were signs early on that the coordinated and punishing coalition attacks were taking an unsustainable toll on Iraqi forces. The Republican Guard had lost three of six divisions that could defend the capital and all but 92 of what had been 2,500 battle tanks. The coalition had begun landing transport planes at renamed Baghdad International to resupply coalition forces who had begun testing resistance with convoys into Baghdad.

One such excursion showed the kind of hits the regime's defenders were taking. When the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division met resistance in the western part of the city, according to a U.S. military spokesman, 23 Iraqi tanks were destroyed along with 22 artillery pieces and 30 armored personnel carriers.

Fighting between paramilitaries and the 101st Airborne Division near Karbala yielded similarly one-sided results, according to the United States: one American killed and seven wounded compared with an estimated 400 Iraqis killed.

After Iraqi forces struck the 3rd Infantry's Baghdad operations center with a missile, killing two soldiers and two European journalists and destroying 17 vehicles, the independent Center for Defense Information in Washington described the attack as "one of the few competent conventional military operations" by Iraq to that point in the war.

Other acts of resistance were described as hard-fought but largely ineffectual. In battles for key bridges, Iraqi fighters in trucks, buses and armored cars took up small arms and rocket-propelled grenades against U.S. air power, tanks and fighting vehicles. Initial American incursions into Baghdad quickly gave way to overnight occupation of Hussein's palaces as Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf became the subject of international derision for his defiant and increasingly unreal denials of coalition progress.

The air campaign

The week began with an incident of friendly fire in northern Iraq, as two American aircraft bombed a convoy of Kurdish peshmerga fighters which had been advancing after coalition airstrikes on Iraqi forces between Ain Sifne and Khazer. A U.S. special operations soldier and 18 peshmerga were killed, and 45 were injured, including Waji Barzani, brother of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

In the south, British commanders said Iraqi Gen. Ali Hassan Al-Majid had been killed in an airstrike on a building in Basra. Al-Majid, the infamous "Chemical Ali," is a cousin of Hussein's and is believed to have ordered the chemical bombing of the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war. His reported death, though unconfirmed, was welcomed by Kurdish leaders in the north.

As U.S. aircraft strengthened their presence over Baghdad prior to the collapse of the government there, with 24-hour patrols by manned and unmanned aircraft and some of the lowest flights over the city to date, an Iraqi missile downed an A-10 Warthog near the airport; the pilot was rescued.

With the cities of southern and central Iraq in hand, elements of the air campaign concentrated on targets in the north. Iraqi lines facing Kurdish fighters came under heavy attack near Mosul, and U.S. aircraft also bombed targets in Tikrit. The Adnan Division of the Republican Guard was thought to be in the area.

Casualties

As of Friday, the coalition had reported the death of 107 Americans and 31 British soldiers. The Iraqi government had not stated military losses, but coalition estimates of Iraqi soldiers killed came to at least 3,150.

Ten U.S. troops were missing and seven were believed captured. The coalition estimated that more than 13,000 Iraqis were held as prisoners of war, and that was before the Iraq army's 5th Corps surrendered in Mosul. Central Command, however, indicated that the corps members may be returned to their civilian lives.

Sources: Center for Defense Information, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press.

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