Captain Dan Hibner leads river assault.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, American policy makers along with a small coalition of allies, decided that Saddam Hussein presented too great a threat to regional and global stability to remain in power. Whether the decision to invade Iraq was a correct one remains an emotionally charged and divisive issue. Little is gained by rehashing those debates here. Rather, it is the impact of that decision that concerns us.
Even as a separate war in Afghanistan was in its second year, the American military began rapidly concentrating significant power in the Gulf region. Despite the fact that the attack had much larger aims than the 1991 war with Iraq (Desert Storm), only a fraction of the force employed in that earlier fight was sent to the Gulf. Later, as the insurgency in Iraq took hold and spread, this lack of “boots on the ground” would appear to be one of the great mistakes of the war. For the purposes of defeating the Iraqi army and destroying the elite Republican Guard, however, it was sufficient. This was due mainly to the continued technological advancement of the American forces relative to the Iraqi army.
Precision weapons, which Americans had seen impressively displayed on nightly newscasts in 1991, had continued to improve both in quality and in quantity in the intervening years. Moreover, the U.S. military had made large strides in the communications and information arenas. Such technologies as “blue force tracking” allowed American commanders to see the precise location of almost every one of their combat vehicles that crossed the Iraqi border in something approximating real time. On a fast-moving and rapidly evolving modern battlefield, this dominant situational awareness proved decisive. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs may not have lived up to the hype generated by its most vocal supporters, but it was not without huge benefits, particularly on a high-intensity battlefield.
The Coalition plan of attack called for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to attack along the west side of the Euphrates River toward Baghdad, while the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force attacked along the east side of the Euphrates toward Al Kut, before it too turned west for Baghdad. To the far east was Great Britain’s 1st Armored Division, assigned to capture and hold the Basra area in southern Iraq. Coming up behind the 3rd Infantry Division was the 101st Airborne Division, followed by other units as they rolled into the theater. In front of these divisions stood several divisions of the regular Iraqi army, designated by allied planners as being of inferior quality. Between these divisions and the final defensive lines around Baghdad were tens of thousands of Fedayeen irregulars, whose suicidal bravery made a significant impact on the minds of American commanders. Finally, Saddam entrusted the final defense of Baghdad to the six divisions of the Republican Guard.
For the most part, the Iraqi defenses were misaligned and ill prepared to resist the American onslaught. This was due primarily to Saddam’s belief to the very end that the Coalition would never dare to attack—and if it did, it would halt short of Baghdad, as it had in 1991. In fact, throughout the American buildup, Saddam considered Iran and a potential domestic revolt by the Shia as his two greatest security threats. An American-led invasion placed a distant third in his calculations. Saddam also fell victim to an American deception plan that convinced him the main Coalition attack would come from Jordan and not Kuwait. Owing to this erroneous belief, Saddam ordered the movement of several Republican Guard divisions to the west side of Baghdad, a decision that had a grievous effect on his defense. He never accepted that the main American attack would come from the southern desert until the 3rd Infantry Division began tearing apart his much vaunted Republican Guard divisions.
On March 19, 2003, the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) blasted across the Iraq–Kuwait border. Initially, only the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division stood in its way, but it soon dissolved under 3ID’s first hammer blows. As the American forces raced across the Iraqi desert, they expected a joyous welcome from the majority population in the Shia-dominated south. There was no love lost between the Shia and the Sunni-dominated Saddam government. In fact, in the wake of the 1991 war the Shia had revolted. That revolt came within a hairbreadth of toppling the regime and was put down only by mass slaughter. Saddam’s Republican Guards killed an estimated one hundred thousand Shia as they battled to retake the region. Nevertheless, American hopes of Shia welcoming parades and celebrations in honor of their deliverers were soon quashed. Having endured years of persecution, the Shia were a defeated people. They simply were not going to take overt steps until they were absolutely sure Saddam was dead.
As the lead elements of 3ID entered the city of Samawah, revelers were nowhere in sight. Instead the Americans were set upon by hundreds and later thousands of Fedayeen irregulars. These troops were not well trained, were poorly led, and were usually equipped only with light arms. However, they were fanatically loyal to the regime and possessed suicidal courage. Over the succeeding days, 3ID soldiers were awed and, in the early going, a bit unnerved by the Fedayeen’s willingness to press assaults through murderous American fire. Some attacks were broken up only at the edges of the American line, while one brigade commander was even forced to shoot a Fedayeen who had climbed aboard his tank. In the end, though, it was all in vain. Fedayeen fanaticism proved inferior to walls of armor belching out thousands of rounds a minute. The Fedayeen put a scare into some senior leaders and caught the attention of the press, but after the initial contacts they rarely made an impression on the 3ID soldiers. The Fedayeen would come out en masse again at Najaf and Karbala and to contest the final “Thunder Runs” into Baghdad itself. The fighting was always fierce, but the result was the same. Thousands of Fedayeen were sacrificed in futile attempts to slow the pace of 3ID’s advance.
Outside of Najaf, however, 3ID was halted. This was mostly a result of massive sandstorms and the fact that the armored formations had outrun their logistics. A few days were needed to rest, rearm, and refuel before the next push. However, by now the Fedayeen had captured the public’s imagination, and the media presented the halt to the American people as a natural result of the unexpectedly high levels of Iraqi resistance. An air of pessimism was pervasive everywhere except among the American combat leaders, who were convinced they were on the edge of victory. As the commander of 3ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team (2BCT), Colonel David Perkins, said when asked about the Fedayeen, “I did not expect this many of them, but all that means is that I have to use more ammunition … and I have plenty of that.” When told that Time magazine was planning a cover story titled “Why Are We Losing?” he was reported to have said: “Today my brigade leaves Najaf and heads north. Tomorrow we rest, rearm and refuel. The next day I attack to annihilate the Medina Division. The day after that I will be in Baghdad.” But before Perkins could lead his 2BCT into Baghdad, 3ID’s 1st Brigade Combat Team (1BCT), commanded by Colonel William Grimsley, would have to secure the narrow Karbala Gap and seize a crossing on the Euphrates River.
The Karbala gap was the one place in Iraq the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division feared. It was the narrowest choke point along their route from Kuwait to Baghdad, and everyone from private to general was sure that this was where Saddam would hit them with chemical weapons. However, by early morning on April 1, Grimsley’s 1BCT had moved unmolested through the gap and was consolidating on the far side. But the tedious passage coupled with the incredible tension of expecting at any moment to be hit by chemical weapons left everyone exhausted and looking forward to a planned twelve-hour rest before the lunge for the critical Euphrates bridges that would open the door to Baghdad.
Determined to take advantage of the rapid advance through the Karbala Gap, the division commander, General Buff Blount, was already forming new plans. He considered the lack of Iraqi resistance in the Karbala Gap to be evidence that the Americans had rocked the Iraqis back on their heels and was not inclined to give the enemy time to recover. He called Grimsley and ordered him to have his brigade moving forward before noon. Despite the troops’ exhaustion, Grimsley had Lieutenant Colonel Rock Marcone’s 3–69 Armored Battalion refueled and roaring toward the Euphrates bridge—Objective Peach—by 11:00 A.M.
Objective Peach (the al-Qa’id Bridge) was a dual-span bridge over the Euphrates River and the final obstacle before Baghdad. It presented the last chance the Iraqis would have to slow the American onslaught. The Iraqi II Republican Corps commander, Lieutenant General Raad Hamdani, had long recognized the importance of the bridge, which he termed “the Iraqi Remagen.” Almost two weeks before, he had put a company on the bridge under the command of one of his best junior officers and ordered him to blow up the bridge if he even suspected the Americans were approaching. A week later, he sent his chief of staff to the bridge to make sure the defenses were ready and the demolitions were in place. However, this officer took it upon himself to countermand Hamdani’s order, telling the bridge commander that Saddam had ordered that no bridges be destroyed and that if he blew up this bridge, Hamdani would be executed. Though one span of the bridge was damaged in an unexplained explosion, the officer charged with the duty of blowing up the bridge refused to carry out Hamdani’s orders as 3ID tanks approached. Hamdani later said, “Both men acted out of personal loyalty to me, but it was a big mistake. It cost us the war.”
Knowing the bridge was still standing, but not for how long, Rock Marcone’s combat-tested 3-69 Armored Battalion set a furious pace as it led the 1BCT’s drive to Peach. Along the way, Marcone’s troops met sporadic resistance, which only two weeks earlier would have caused the attacking columns to deploy and take precious time developing the situation. But something had happened to Marcone and the rest of the 3ID soldiers in the two weeks since invading Iraq—they had become veterans.
Now, encountering the enemy on the line of march was almost routine. Only the most determined resistance called for a halt. For Marcone’s veterans, enemy contacts merited only a quick radio report as his armored battalion destroyed everything it encountered and continued its advance. Radio traffic became a litany of targets spotted, engaged, and destroyed. Only at one point did the enemy make a serious stand, when two hundred Iraqis fired from behind fortified positions into the flanks of the onrushing armored column. Marcone’s Alpha Company veered out of the advancing column and annihilated the position, then rejoined the battalion fifteen minutes later. What Marcone’s troops were reporting as light and sporadic contact was actually the entire 14th Brigade of the Republican Guard’s Medina Division being ground out of existence. One Iraqi general later said, with this attack in mind, “The American soldiers are very disciplined. They fight like robots and engage and kill everything on the battlefield. The Americans did not even seem to react to our defensive plans. They simply fought their way through anything that stood in their path.”
Worried about reports that the Americans were through the Karbala Gap and that his front was collapsing, Hamdani rushed to the Medina Division’s headquarters north of Karbala. While being briefed by the Medina Division’s commander, Hamdani proudly watched the 1st Regiment of the 14th Brigade form up to launch a counterattack. A regiment in attack formation, however, was a lucrative and rarely found target, and U.S. sensors spotted it almost immediately after it formed. Before the regiment could move forward, American jets pounced. As Hamdani looked on, the regiment was annihilated in an instant of blast and flame.
Shortly after 1:00 P.M., Hamdani was called back to Baghdad for the most incredible meeting of the war. All he could do for the Medina’s commander was to tell him to hold on and that he would send whatever reinforcements were available. It was a comment of despair, because by that time Marcone’s leading tanks had already covered half the distance from Karbala to Objective Peach and the Medina’s 14th Brigade no longer existed.