Wednesday 2 April 2003
As the assault on the Iraqi capital looms, machinations about the country's future are already under way
The battle for Baghdad is about to begin in earnest, according to numerous reports this morning. The invasion forces are said to be "poised" and a massive ground offensive is "imminent".
US planners appear satisfied that continuous pounding by bombs has left the Republican Guard forces who protect the Iraqi capital sufficiently "degraded" (as the military put it) for the war to move on to the next phase. The important Medina division of the Republican Guard has been reduced to 50% of its fighting strength, the Pentagon says.
These moves also imply that the US has now secured its long supply lines which until recently seemed dangerously exposed.
It is still uncertain what will happen next. One scenario is that US forces will encircle the Baghdad - in effect besieging it. Another is that they will attempt to "punch through" the Republican Guard into the city itself.
A source at Centcom in Qatar is quoted as saying: "The next four days will be critical", so the picture should be much clearer by Saturday.
Amid the talk of capturing Baghdad, the Guardian reports that Pentagon experts have spent several months observing Israeli military operations in Palestinian cities, and have been studying videos of the assault on Jenin last year.
The article quotes a retired Israeli brigadier-general: "An urban environment is the great equaliser. You can't utilise your superiority in training and equipment. It's very easy for your adversary to hide and he usually knows the terrain much better than you."
Meanwhile, Iraq's government-in-waiting, which the US is setting up under great secrecy in Kuwait, is beset by political turmoil. Pentagon hardliners appear to be mounting a coup d'etat even before the government has any territory to control.
Apart from the attempt by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, to install Ahmed Chalabi, the failed Iraqi banker, and his cronies in advisory positions (since all the ministerial posts will be filled by Americans), the Pentagon has also ousted eight senior officials nominated by the US state department.
The Pentagon is seeking to replace the state department people, who include several ambassadors, with a bunch of neo-conservative hawks - most notably James Woolsey, a former CIA director.
One of the first concerns of this government-in-waiting is what to do about Iraqi banknotes which - horror of horrors - carry a picture of Saddam Hussein. Their solution, according to the Washington Post, is to scrap the Iraqi dinar and replace it with the US dollar. This will doubtless be viewed by all Iraqis as conclusive proof of America's imperialist intentions.
Several major Iraqi opposition groups, such as the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Iraqi National Accord, say they have been excluded from discussions about the interim government. A KDP official yesterday described the US plans as "not workable at all".
Although Britain has been consulted, it also seems unhappy about US plans to establish neo-colonial rule, even if it's supposed to be temporary. Prime minister Tony Blair yesterday called for a UN-sponsored conference of all groups to start reshaping Iraq's future.
Most reports so far suggest that the Pentagon's government will be very short-term - 90 days is the period mentioned - and that it will not start to take over until Saddam Hussein has been removed. However, if resistance in Baghdad is prolonged, it may assume control over the "liberated" parts of Iraq earlier. It is possible, therefore, that by the time Saddam falls, a new Pentagon regime will have become firmly entrenched on Iraqi soil.
Overnight, Centcom gave a highly unusual 3.30am briefing to announce that 19-year-old Private Jessica Lynch, who disappeared during an ambush near Nassiriyah last week, had been rescued from an Iraqi hospital.
Accounts of the extraordinary efforts that went into the search-and-rescue mission will undoubtedly serve as a moral-booster for US troops, and among the American public.
But this also contrasts with accounts of an American assault on a village near Babylon yesterday which killed dozens of civilians, according to the Iraqi authorities. Reuters correspondents on the spot have confirmed that the dead include at least nine children.
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