Iraqis knew Apache assault was coming

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent  |  May 7, 2003 at 2:05 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, May 7 (UPI) -- An Iraqi spy hiding in An Najaf speed-dialed the Medina Republican Guard division on his cell phone that U.S. Army Apache helicopters had launched an attack March 24. What was supposed to be a surprise assault ended up with heavy damage to the helicopter fleet and the capture of two U.S. pilots who were then held as prisoners of war, the commander of the U.S. Army's V Corps told Pentagon reporters Wednesday from Baghdad.

"The attack of the 11th Aviation on (Regiment) the Medina Division did not meet the objectives that I had set for that attack," said Lt. Gen. Scott Wallace, V Corps commander. "We found out, subsequent to the attack, based on some intelligence reports, that apparently ... both the location of our attack aviation assembly areas and the fact that we were moving out of those assembly areas in the attack was announced to the enemy's air defense personnel by an Iraqi observer, thought to be a major general, who was located someplace in the town of An Najaf using a cellular telephone."

Chief Warrant Officers Ronald Young Jr. and David S. Williams were captured. They were freed April 17.

The Iraqis also apparently cut the power in the area, an apparent signal to air defense gunners using small arms and tracer fires to attack the approaching U.S. helicopters.

"As our attack aviation approached the attack positions, they came under intense enemy fire," Wallace said.

Wallace said the unit changed the way it used the helicopters based on the after-action report and two days later launched a successful "deep" operation north of Karbala. Around 30 Apaches were used in the 3rd Infantry Division's attack through the Karbala Gap to Baghdad.

"So I guess, to summarize, I would suggest to you that we learned from our mistakes, we adjusted and adapted based on what we learned, and we still used the Apache helicopter in a significant role during the course of the fight," Wallace said.

The town of An Najaf proved and unanticipated early bump in the road to Baghdad, Wallace acknowledged.

The Army did not plan on fighting in An Najaf; it was one of the areas U.S. Central Command wanted to bypass so it could race to pressure Baghdad. However, the presence of paramilitary forces there and their persistent harassment of U.S. forces as they moved north made it necessary, Wallace said.

"It was not my intention to get involved in battles in and around An Najaf early in the campaign, largely because of the political and cultural and religious significance of An Najaf," said Wallace, in a video-teleconference. "But we found it necessary to isolate the city and start doing those type of urban raids, those armored raids, into the urban environment because of the forces that we met there and because of their penchant for attacking out of those urban centers toward our forces."

The fighting around An Najaf was a sort of school for U.S. soldiers on what they would face in Baghdad, Wallace said.

"Those battles in and around An Najaf served as a rehearsal of sorts for the subsequent isolation of Baghdad, which, by the way, was part of our original plan, which was executed beautifully by the 3rd Infantry Division," he said. "And then the idea of conducting heavy armored raids into the city was something that our soldiers adapted to during the course of the campaign, and adapted very well."

Wallace told a reporter March 27 that the enemy the U.S. military was facing was not one they had war-gamed against. The comment caused a stir in Washington, where critics of the war strategy said this was evidence the Defense Department failed to prepare properly for an underestimated enemy.

"I make no apologies for those comments," Wallace said Wednesday. "The enemy that we fought in al-Samawa, the enemy that we fought in An Najaf, the enemy that we fought in Al Hillah and in Karbala, the enemy that we fought to some extent in An Nasiriyah when the 5th Corps first seized Tallil Air Base and the first intact bridge over the Euphrates River was much more aggressive than what we expected him to be, or at least, what I expected him to be," he said. "He was willing to attack out of those towns toward our formations, when my expectation was that they would be defending those towns and not be as aggressive."

He said the Saddam Fedayeen, backed by foreign fighters "were at least fanatical, if not suicidal."

While they had not prepared to fight such an enemy, they did have some ideas as to how to conduct the kinds of urban assaults needed to rout them, Wallace said.

"First of all, we didn't train those tactics explicitly," Wallace said.

The 1st Armored Division rehearsed urban assault with armored forces for five days on a simulation system based in Germany before they arrived. Before the war began Wallace called together the brigade level commanders of the ground forces – Marines included – to be briefed on what the 1st Armored Division had learned.

"The folks from the 1st Armored Division that had conducted the simulation shared with us the techniques that they seem to have refined through simulation, not perfected, but refined, and at least planted the seeds for the idea of heavy armor in a urban raid-type configuration," he said.

Wallace said the war effort picked up speed about three days before U.S. forces arrived at the Baghdad International Airport. He helped coordinate attack on five objectives simultaneously: the 3rd Infantry Division against a target along the Euphrates River between Al Hillah and Karbala; moving part of the 7th Cavalry at the southern mouth of the Karbala Gap to begin the assault on Baghdad; the 101st Air Assault Division attacked from An Najaf toward Al Hillah; the 82nd Airborne attacked As Samawa; and an element of the 101st conducted an armed reconnaissance mission on the western flank of the corps.

"All of those attacks, all five of them, took place at 0300 Zulu on the same morning," Wallace said.

As the attacks were completed – marking the first direct combat with Iraqi Republican Guard forces – UAVs and manned reconnaissance aircraft reported the Iraqi army was repositioning.

"And it was about 3, maybe 4 in the afternoon on a beautiful sunlit day, low wind, no restrictions to flight, and at that point the U.S. Air Force had a heyday against those repositioning Iraqi forces," Wallace recounted.

Wallace also admitted the long supply line U.S. Central Command planned to use had been cut off by the enemy, potentially isolating the forward troops from their food and ammunition replenishments.

The stretched supply line was one of the chief concerns of Centcom's critics, who worried that U.S. troops would be isolated and vulnerable, and that too few troops had been allocated for the war.

"As you might recall, we were operating over a very long supply line. The supply line that we had planned on using had been interdicted by enemies in and around al-Samawa," Wallace said. "So during the sandstorm, we were concerned that we wouldn't have sufficient supplies in place in order to extend all the way into Baghdad. Our logisticians did a remarkable job of rectifying that situation, and I think the results speak for themselves ... 16 days later, we were occupying downtown Baghdad and had soldiers on the steps of the presidential palace."

Wallace said the widespread looting in Baghdad was not the result of too few U.S. forces sent to capture the city but by intense combat that prevented soldiers from protecting hospitals, schools, banks, museums and government offices.

"I don't think it was as much an issue of the number of troops as the fact that we were still fighting our ass off as we went into Baghdad," he said. "And our first responsibility was to defeat the enemy forces, both paramilitary and regular army."

Wallace said as of Wednesday, he had been told all but 17 items looted from the national museum have been returned.

"What doesn't get reported is the fact that we also secured a significant museum that is located at the Tomb of the Unknowns in downtown Baghdad, and that was not looted at all, by virtue of our presence," he said.

Wallace said he is not concerned about the security situation in Baghdad "at all, other than the general notion that we are still seeing criminal elements on occasion."

"We are still occasionally experiencing what we believe to be celebratory fires. We will occasionally receive small arms fire on some of our patrols or our fixed installations," Wallace said.

About 4,000 Iraqi policemen reported to duty several days ago, and the 18th Military Police Brigade is in Baghdad with 4 1/2 U.S. Army Military Police companies. They are conducting joint patrols and are helping to train the police.

There is still no physical evidence of an Iraqi chemical or biological weapons program – one of the main reasons President Bush cited for the war -- but there are reams of documents that suggest otherwise.

"I can only say that we've collected evidence, much of it documentary evidence, that suggests there was an active program. It's taken a while, as you might expect, to sort through that documentary evidence," Wallace said. "A lot of the information that we're getting is coming from low-tier Iraqis who had some knowledge of the program but not full knowledge of the program, and it's just taken us a while to sort through all of that."

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories