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Analysis: A clearer picture of Basra

By THOMAS HOULAHAN

WASHINGTON, April 9 (UPI) -- On Tuesday, the British army was trying to restore order in Basra. It was working with non-Baathist community leaders to stop the looting and arrange for the distribution of food and water. On Sunday, the city fell after a 17-day siege.

The final battle began when the 3rd Parachute Battalion pushed into the city from the south. On the paratroops' right flank, a battalion of Royal Marines (42 Commando) made its way toward the Presidential Palace.

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Once the paratroops and Marines had the Iraqis' attention, the armored assault went in. That assault involved three battle groups. From the west, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and Black Watch smashed into Basra and made their way toward the center if the city. From the southwest, came the Irish Guards and 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment. As the Iraqi defenders reoriented to meet these attacks, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers sliced into the city from the north. The attack was conducted slowly and methodically, and would end in complete success, with the loss of only three British soldiers killed.

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Surprisingly few Iraqi soldiers were encountered. In all likelihood, most of the survivors of the 51st Mechanized Division had drifted away as their armor and artillery was destroyed during the previous 2 1/2 weeks. The overwhelming majority of the defenders were Baath Party militia or Saddam's Fedayeen. They put up spirited resistance but were overwhelmed by the better-trained, better-equipped British. Hundreds of Iraqi defenders were killed.

The targeting of the Baathist commander in the south, Ali Hassan Majeed, nicknamed "Chemical Ali" for his use of poison gas against the Kurds, undoubtedly hastened Basra's downfall. He is believed to have been killed when British Special Air Service commandos guided bombs into a house in Basra. While his death remains unconfirmed, it is clear that he spent much of the siege of Basra running for his life, and that as a result, he was unable to exercise effective command of the city's defenders.

An important defection also hastened the end of the siege. It has emerged that an Iraqi brigadier general in command of a tank brigade (probably the 41st Armored Brigade of the 51st Mechanized Division) had defected to the British days before Sunday's attack. The detailed information he provided about the command structure of the Iraqi defenders and the location of Army units was described as "priceless" by one British officer.

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The information he provided also explained a great deal about why the battle for Basra unfolded the way it did. According to the general, his brigade began the war in positions outside Basra. As soon as Coalition armored forces entered Iraq, Baath Party officials ordered him to attack them. The general, who was a graduate of the British Army's Staff College at Sandhurst, and knew what coalition forces were capable of, was no fool. He realized at once that the mission was suicidal. It was clear that his brigade would probably be caught in the open and wiped out by air attacks. If it wasn't, Allied Abrams or Challenger II tanks would make short work of his 1950s vintage T-55 tanks in the open field. He ignored the order and pulled his brigade back into Basra. American or British tanks were going to have to come to him, and meet his brigade on terrain more favorable to it.

This provides some insight into why Basra, which had been expected to fall in the opening days of the war, was able to hold out for almost three weeks. It is almost certain that the division's other two brigade commanders received similar orders. Yet, they also retreated into Basra. Coalition forces would only encounter a handful of armored vehicles outside Basra. Clearly, the commanders of Iraq's heavy units were not as tactically inept as some Coalition planners had expected.

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Ultimately, the retreat to Basra only delayed the inevitable, as the British refused to be baited into a major armored battle in urban terrain. Instead, they laid siege to Basra and began slowly thinning out Iraqi armor with air and artillery strikes or small armored jabs into the city. They used the time before the final assault to learn as much as they could about the Iraqi defenses.

The brigade commander's information answered a lot of questions about the command structure of the defenders of Basra, but it also raised some interesting questions. For example, why was he receiving orders from Baath Party officials and not his division commander? The division commander had not been relieved. In fact, the commander of the 51st Mechanized Division was one of the commanders mentioned by name and spoken of in glowing terms in Saddam Hussein's first televised speech of the war. Contrary to popular belief, he did not surrender. It was widely reported that the 51st's commander surrendered his division on the first day of the ground war. However, it was later discovered that the "general" in question was a mid-level officer who had hoped that exaggerating his stature might win him better treatment by his captors.

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This uncomfortable command arrangement might explain why the Iraqi army's defenses throughout Iraq have seemed so incoherent. It was widely known that before the war Saddam had divided Iraq into four defensive zones, each under the authority of a senior Baath Party official. It had been believed, however, that the specifics of defending those zones would be left to commanders in the field.

This was apparently not the case. It appears that there has been widespread party interference in tactical decisions, and that even mid-level party officials have issued marching orders. It seems that throughout Iraq, party officials were free with ill-conceived plans and accusations of cowardice when they were not acted upon by the army. Meanwhile, it is clear that army officers resented the interference, and that while some officers grudgingly obeyed orders from Baathist officials, many felt free to ignore them. Thus, there was an undercurrent of tension in the Iraqi defense establishment and no consistent pattern to Iraq's defenses.

As was the case in the first Gulf War, the Iraqi Army's worst enemy was not coalition forces. It was its political leadership.

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(Thomas Houlahan is the director of the Military Assessment Program of the William R. Nelson Institute at James Madison University. A veteran of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps staff, he is the author of "Gulf War: The Complete History," Schrenker Military Publishing, 1999)

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