Twenty-one days after the invasion of Iraq, 42 Commando trudge though Basra, supported by British Challenger 2s.
Basra – Iraq’s second-largest city and main seaport – lies (according to Iraqi figures) 67km from the Gulf, 549km from the Iraqi capital and 50km from the Iraqi-Kuwaiti borderThe Tigris and Euphrates rivers join near Baghdad and then part again before meeting to the south at Qurna to form the Shatt-al-Arab River, or Waterway, which flows through Basra and on into the Gulf. The Shatt-al-Arab was reportedly navigable by maritime traffic for about 130km (the channel had been dredged and was reportedly in use), though was littered with junk and unexploded ordnance from the Iran-Iraq and Gulf War conflicts.
Other Iraqi ports were just not up to the job. Al-Faw (Fao), Khawar al Amaya and Mina al Bakr are just oil terminals, whilst Khor al-Zubair (Khawar az Zubayr) is an industrial port. Along with Umm Qasr they all have one thing in common: their harbours are too small to conduct effective military operations from and geographically they are too far south to assist with a push on Baghdad. Umm Qasr on the Gulf is where goods from the oil-for-food programme underwent UN scrutiny, while the UN-approved oil was exported from Mina al Bakr: In contrast, Basra’s facilities had become a haven for smugglers. Khor al-Zubair to the north of Umm Qasr was dredged in the late 1980s to allow access for medium-sized bulk carriers, but was still inadequate.
The capture of Basra, along with its docks, was vital to a successful invasion of Iraq. Any attack was likely to be three-pronged; certainly from the south up towards Barsa and Nasiriya and then Baghdad; possibly from the west across the Syro-Arabian desert from Saudi Arabia towards Najaf and Karbala and on to Baghdad; and possibly from the north from Turkey down the road from Zakho to Mosul and Kirkuk, and across the upper plain towards Baghdad. In the event, Saudi Arabia and Turkey did not want to be party to the assault on Iraq. Of the three, Basra became the jumping-off point for any assault on the Iraqi capital. Also, opposition to Saddam’s Sunni-based regime could rally on the Shia Muslims of Basra.
The city consists of three main areas – Ashar Margil and Basra proper The latter is the old residential area to the west of Ashar, while Ashar itself consists of the old commercial district, including the Corniche running along the Shatt-al-Arab, Sharia al-Kuwait and Sharia ath-Thawra. The Shatt-al-Arab is dominated by Sinbad Island, connected to Basra by a bridge. To the north-west of Ashar is Margil. This is strategically the most important district as it contains the port and the railway station (the 582km Umm Qasr Line), which links the city with Baghdad. Basra also has an international airport, closed to international traffic since 1990, and a nearby petrochemical complex.
Basra’s estimated two million people lived largely in a state of chaos. The city’s infrastructure was a shambles and suffered chronic power cuts, with leaking sewage and water networks. Criss-crossed by waterways and canals, the Iraqis once called it the ‘Venice of the East’. However, the city and the port were in an extremely poor state of repair Both suffered extensive damage in the war with Iran, the Gulf War and the subsequent 1991 Shia rebellion.
The port, which needed dredging, was described as a ‘crumbling Third World dustbin’. The quays and wharves were in a state of disrepair and were cluttered with derelict vessels, most of them victims of the Iranians rather than the Americans, as the locals claimed. The canals were fetid and many blocked with old tyres and concrete debris. The Shatt-al-Basra Canal was navigable by shallow-draft craft until 1991. The Venetian-style bridges lay in ruins. Similarly, the Shatt-al-Arab itself was littered with vessels that were the victims of the Iran-Iraq War The railway line was overgrown and the marshalling yard filled with long-abandoned trucks.
To the north of Basra, encompassing the southern governorates of Basra itself, Thi Qar and Misan were once vast marshes covering 10,000km2. However, much of them was drained in the late 1980s. Also, 74km north of Basra lies Qurna (the Garden of Eden, as legend has it) on the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Beyond Qurna is Amara, where the Iraqis built new docks in the 1980s. All three cities are linked by a good highway that goes all the way to the capital. To the west of the marshes and Qurna is Nasiriyah, some 375km south-east of Baghdad, which again sits astride a highway going north.
In the run-up to war, Royal Navy mine hunters were charged with mine-clearing operations in the northern Gulf and opening the approaches to the Shatt-al-Arab leading to Basra and the Euphrates river system. In order to take Basra, the Coalition needed to secure Al-Faw, a sizeable city at the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab that remained a ruin after being captured by the Iranians in 1986. An amphibious force was prepared for such a role and included the Royal Marines and US Marine Corps.
It was anticipated that all the bridges over the Tigris and the Euphrates would be destroyed to delay any forces seeking to cross en route to Iraq’s cities until more Iraqi troops could be deployed southward. The Iraqis would also probably attempt to destroy Basra’s port facilities rather than let them fall into Coalition hands.
Basra was defended by what the Iraqi Army called ‘Saddam forces’, or the Popular Army (little more than militia), and elements of the Republican Guard from several divisions (a tougher nut to crack). On paper the Iraqi garrison looked formidable. General Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam’s cousin, had up to 2,000 naval personnel, with half a dozen missile-armed patrol boats, 10,000 troops of the army’s 51 st Mechanized Division, with armour, miscellaneous air defence forces, irregular Fedayeen (men of sacrifice) and units of the Republican Guard. Up to another 30,000 men of the 10th, 12th and 14th Iraqi divisions were deployed in the region.
Security in the city remained tight due to the threat of invasion and because the regime did not trust the Shia population. Basra’s air defences were also quite extensive, though continued to suffer in air raids. Any Coalition naval push up the Shatt-al-Arab would almost certainly be accompanied or pre-empted by a swift airborne assault that would seek to seize the airport, docks, highway and Sinbad Island before the Iraqi defenders could react.
General al-Majid’s options were fairly limited; he did not want to get his mechanized division entangled in the streets of Basra, which meant holding the city would fall largely to the militia and other ramshackle volunteer formations. He must have known that his dug-in supporting infantry units were unlikely to withstand the Coalition’s mechanized units and fighter-bombers once they pressed home their attacks.
At best he must have hoped he could suck Coalition forces into Basra, where they would be forced to fight costly urban warfare that would hold up their advance. His regular forces could conduct local counter-attacks designed to cut off Coalition troops once they were inside the city. The reality was that this would be a tall order in the face of concerted attacks by enemy jets, helicopter gunships, missiles and artillery. Such firepower would make it almost impossible for him to concentrate his tanks for a counter-attack.
It is doubtful that General al-Majid received very much, if any, intelligence regarding the forces facing him. At army and corps level air attack had largely blinded the Iraqi armed forces. No doubt spotters using mobile phones relayed some information to his commanders but this will have provided little information other than to confirm approaching enemy troops. He must have appreciated that once the attack commenced his men would be subject to the full firepower that modern western armies can muster.
The countryside south of Basra had been the scene of heavy fighting in 1991, when Saddam’s Republican Guard took a pounding in the ‘Basra Pocket’. The Guard had eventually escaped north but not before they had been subjected to a gruelling air attack and involved in bitter tank battles with the Americans. This time the Republican Guard Corps was far to the north, defending Baghdad – General al-Majid was essentially on his own.
It’s likely that General al-Majid looked at his situation maps and appreciated that the Coalition would not want to get bogged down in Basra so would bypass it. There was every likelihood that he and his garrison would be trapped by a holding force while American and British tanks fought their way to the capital. His was a thankless and unenviable task.
The first confirmed firefight between American and Iraqi forces took place on 20 March 2003, 3.57 pm local time. LAV-25s (light armoured vehicles), armed with 25mm cannon, from the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, US Ist Marine Division, engaged two Iraqi armoured personnel carriers south of the border The LAV-25s swiftly destroyed the Iraqi forces using chain guns and TOW (tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles.
Afterwards, the first units of the powerful US 3rd Infantry Division, equipped with 200 M1A2 Abrams, 260 M2 Bradleys, fifty-four M109 Paladins and twenty-four Apache AH-64 helicopter gunships, crossed into Iraq, engaging and destroying an Iraqi command post and two T-72s.
Under covering fire from the ‘Desert Rats’ of Britain’s 7th Armoured Brigade, units from the 26 Armoured Engineer Squadron spearheading the attack pierced the Iraqis’ sand berms and laid bridging equipment to allow US Marine Abrams to pass through the Iraqi border Prior to this, 155mm artillery and US Marine Cobra helicopter gunships had pounded positions held by the Iraqi 51 st Mechanized Division.
Two days later, the US Ist Marine Division drove on to Basra. While securing the oil fields outside of the city they stumbled upon ten Iraqi T-55 tanks dug into defensive positions. Using shoulder-launched missiles and TOWs mounted on top of their 4×4 HMMWVs, the Americans destroyed all of them. A massive British contingent of about 8,000 troops, 120 tanks and 145 armoured vehicles also moved into southern Iraq from Kuwait to support US forces heading for Basra. They soon found themselves coming into contact with regular Iraqi Army forces, including the 51 st Division. The 10th, 12th and 14th Iraqi divisions were also reportedly in the region.
Iraqi reinforcements, believed to be a mix of regular troops from the 51 st and irregular troops, also moved into Basra from the north. In one reported incident the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (RSDGs) had to retire 16km to avoid potential ambush by Republican Guards heading out of Basra.
Despite a complete lack of air cover the Iraqis launched two counter-attacks on 24 March 2003 involving up to fifty armoured vehicles, losing twenty elderly T-55 tanks in the process. In the first, British AS90s of the Royal Horse Artillery accounted for eleven Iraqi vehicles, including artillery and tanks. Some T-55s were destroyed in the southern suburb of Abu al Khasib, just 5km from Basra. The second attack was broken up by Harriers, which accounted for twenty Iraqi armoured vehicles heading for al-Zubayr.
On 26 March it was claimed British forces were involved in the biggest tank battle since the Second World War when a convoy of up to 120 Iraqi armoured vehicles tried to break out of Basra. The MoD later clarified there had only been three vehicles! Additionally it was reported that fourteen Challengers of the RSDGs moving east to reinforce the Royal Marines came across a column of fourteen Iraqi T-55 and four APCs. The Guards claimed more than a dozen of them.
On 29 March, the Household Cavalry Regiment found itself in a stand-off with an Iraqi tank and APC until an Army Air Corps Lynx Mk7 destroyed the APC and drove off the tank. The following day in Operation James (after Bond), 600 Royal Marines from 40 Commando attacked Abu al Khasib. The bitter battle, fought against an enemy force of mixed composition and determination, numbering around 500 and bolstered by several squadrons ofT55 tanks, lasted for almost thirteen hours.
British AS90s were called in to deal with twenty-one Iraqi vehicles, some believed to be T-55 tanks, to the north of the Shatt-al-Arab, posing a threat to 40 Commando. Coalition drones spotted the build-up and afterwards the AS90 barrage CENTCOM showed images of all the vehicles either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. To the north-west of Basra, on 31 March, a build-up of some 200 Iraqi troops and twenty-five tanks were also destroyed in well co-ordinated airstrikes. This marked the end of General al-Majid’s concerted efforts to hold Basra.
Three elements of the 7th Armoured Brigade moved cautiously towards the city from positions to the west. The RSDGs drove in with their Challenger 2, while Ist Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and Ist Battalion, the Black Watch, went in aboard their Warriors. Later in the day. 3 Commando Brigade began another push forward from positions south of the city.
By 3 April, the RSDGs were pressing on the outskirts of Basra, when six Challengers and fifteen Warriors, supported by Lynxes, drove the Iraqis from a derelict agricultural college, destroying a T-55 in the process. The following day, five Challengers and five Warriors drove Iraqi militia from the shanty town of Cobla, one Challenger sustaining a direct hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) but suffering no ill effects.
It was anticipated that the Iraqis would destroy Basra’s port facilities rather than let them fall into Coalition hands. Similarly, the bridges over the Tigris and the Euphrates would be destroyed to delay forces seeking to reach Iraq’s other cities. In the event, British armour and Coalition aircraft successfully dealt with the garrison. Basra’s navy was sunk along the Shatt-al-Arab and after several foolish forays the 51 st’s armour was left strewn along the highway to the south. General al-Majid was reported killed on 6 April in an air strike and the following day Britain announced that Saddam’s rule over Basra was at an end, 1,000 hardcore loyalists having been driven out. The city’s facilities fell into Coalition hands ‘intact’.
To the far north, US armour, spearheading Operation Thunder Run, entered Baghdad on 5 April 2003, heralding the beginning of the end for Saddam’s regime. The Iraqi capital was always seen as the centre of gravity, which is why Coalition strategy utilized blitzkrieg-style tactics, slicing through Iraqi defences and pressing on regardless of what was happening on their flanks.