Beeline for Baghdad

Beeline for Baghdad

Beeline for Baghdad

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
March 24 2003 6:54 AM

Beeline for Baghdad

Everybody banners the bloodiest day of the war: U.S. and British units continued to race toward Baghdad, with some units now within 100-miles of the capital, but they also met some stiff resistance. At least 16 U.S. soldiers were killed, with five captured, and about 50 injured. Most of the losses happened near the city of Nasiriayah, which abuts the Euphrates. The now-POWs were part of a supply convoy that was ambushed when it took a wrong turn near Nasiriayah. According to early-morning reports, an Apache helicopter has been shot down—the two pilots are missing—and two British soldiers were also reported missing.

Most of the papers catch late-breaking word that Saddam gave a speech this morning. It might have been a body-double, but it almost certainly wasn't Memorex, or at least not a very old tape: Saddam mentioned recent battles, though not the POWs. He didn't appear to be injured.

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While some of the casualties came in head-on clashes, others were the result of Iraqi irregulars, known as fedayeen, adopting guerrilla rear-action tactics. In some cases, they've dressed up as civilians and in a few instances have reportedly feigned surrender. As everybody mentions to varying degrees, U.S. and Brit forces might have a bit of a soft underbelly since their frontline forces have skipped past large areas as they've sped toward Baghdad.

In an apparent violation of the Geneva Convention, Iraqi TV has broadcast pictures of five American POWs and the bodies of at least four other GIs. Some of the dead appear to have been executed, shot in the head.

The New York Times says that the military estimates there are now "thousands" of fedayeen in southern Iraq, again, essentially the U.S.'s rear. But before assuming that the fedayeen are Saddam's secret super-weapon, read the Washington Post's dispatch from the 3rd Infantry Division, which says that the 3 I.D. wasted a group of the guerrillas yesterday.

The NYT's Michael Wilson, apparently embedded with marines in Nasiriayah, has a deeply honest dispatch from the fight. Unlike many embedded reports, this one doesn't read like a script for an Army ad. Wilson explains that some U.S. artillery units were caught unprepared, some radio phones didn't work, and given the close-in urban combat and fears of friendly fire, pleas for artillery support were often denied.

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The Post says that there's something approaching house-to-house combat going on in Basra, which despite the relative inattention paid to it, is Iraq's second-largest city. "Well organized" members of Iraqi army's 51st division are apparently dug in in residential neighborhoods where they are slugging it out in tank and artillery battles with British forces. (American units bypassed the city.) "It's called Beirut fighting," said one Brit soldier. That's particularly bad news because according to earlier reports, the Pentagon had been hoping to easily bag Basra and turn the victory into a kind of reality-TV liberation celebration.

As the Post mentions, the fact that the resisters are members of Iraq's 51st Army division is notable, since they're the kind of non-Republican Guard regular troops who were supposed to be pushovers. Though the WP doesn't mention it, there's something else interesting about the fact that portions of the 51st are holding out: On Friday, the Pentagon boasted that the division surrendered en masse. 

The Post's piece appears to be the only report today filed from Basra, and even the authors of the WP story couldn't get downtown. (When they tried, some Iraqi men in civilian clothes took aim with AK-47s.) So, it's hard to blame the reporters for not getting the full story. Still, there are two obvious things the Post misses: According to various reports, Basra hasn't had running water or electricity for about three days. Also, as the NYT briefly mentions, health workers say that about 70 civilians have been killed in Basra, significantly more, seemingly, than in Baghdad.)

The Wall Street Journalnotices that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers tried to tamp down speculation, pushed by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and gobbled up by the NYT, that top-level defections are imminent. "I think the negotiations that may be going on are going on at a lower level, actually," said Myers.

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The NYT says that the Bush administration has backed-off on its suggestions that Saddam has been KO'd.   (And good timing, given Saddam's appearance this morning.) The Times also says that Iraq's leadership wasn't totally knocked off its feet as has previously been suggested. "There's more chatter in the system suggesting central control than there was a few days ago," said one "senior coalition official." [Italics added.]

The Los Angeles Times has two reporters who show the benefit of being a unilateral (that is, not embedded): They say that "order has begun to break down" in the border town Safwan, which just a few days ago gained a bit of fame when villagers were filmed hanging with GIs and tearing down Saddam posters. "We need the Americans to come and bring food," said one resident. "We need the electricity fixed, we need someone to police us."

The Journal says that in "sharply contrast" to expectations, many Iraqis in largely anti-Saddam southern Iraq aren't excited about the arrival of GIs. "We hate you. You are all criminals," said one tailor, as he cradled a kid on his lap. The Pentagon is hoping that an imminent influx of humanitarian aid will cool those feelings.

The NYT notices that Bush rejected any notion that Saddam could cry uncle and go into exile. "He had his chance to go into exile," said Bush.

The NYT reports that the U.S. has begun airlifting troops into northern Iraq, both to fight al-Qaida lookalikes Ansar al-Islam and to get control of oil-rich Kirkuk, which is prized by just about everybody in the neighborhood.

Everybody notes that Turkey continues to suggest that it will send troops into northern Iraq, a move that would tick off just about the whole world. President Bush publicly warned Turkey against doing it. But the Journal says that the administration is actually negotiating some sort of limited intervention by Turkey—mainly keeping them within 12-miles of the border. "Discussions are under way but there's no agreement yet," said one unnamed U.S. official.

A front-page insta-analysis in the Post ponders yesterday's casualties and concludes, "U.S. LOSSES EXPOSE RISKS, RAISE DOUBTS ABOUT STRATEGY." Tip to the editors who wrote that: Flip to page A12, and read your paper's lead editorial, "In the long run, more information surely is better than less, and sooner better than later, as the Pentagon calculated when it allowed so many journalists to travel with fighting units. But the tidal waves of information place a higher demand on everyone for perspective and patience. The war is only in its fifth day."