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Tuesday, March 25

Coalition troops prepare for Iraq's most loyal soldiers

By John Yaukey | GNS

Updated: 7:15 p.m., March 25

WASHINGTON - The impending ground battle between coalition forces and the elite Medina Division of Iraq's Republican Guard south of Baghdad promises to give war planners their first glimpse of how tenacious Saddam Hussein's most loyal forces are likely to be and their willingness to use chemical weapons.

Until now, U.S. forces have confronted Iraq's regular army troops and small militia units in battles with only sporadic heavy fighting.

``The Republican Guard are where the real difficulty is, and that starts with the Medina Division,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday.

Severe sandstorms had threatened to delay the confrontation until later this week, but initial reports indicate the Army's 3rd Infantry Division might have clashed with elements of the 10,000-man Medina Division Tuesday near the central Iraq city of An Najaf. No U.S. forces were reported killed, while several hundred Iraqis were believed dead.

Early confrontations between U.S. Apache Longbow helicopters and Medina units Monday in central Iraq where choppers took heavy fire indicate the Republican Guard intends to put up the stiffest resistance coalition forces have seen yet.

The Medina Division has withdrawn to dug-in positions south of Baghdad where the vegetation of the Euphrates Valley will provide vexing cover from high-flying coalition air support.

``To get them to yield you're going to have to inflict significant damage,'' predicted retired Gen. Thomas Rhame, who commanded the Army's 1st Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War and chased the Republican Guard out of Kuwait. ``And the situation gets much more difficult if they retreat into Baghdad and you have an urban combat setting.''

Anticipating significant resistance, coalition bombers have been trying to soften up the Medina Division and other Republican Guard units with hundreds of sorties.

Pentagon officials refused to speculate about the possible length of the battle with the Republican Guard.

Retired Air Force Gen. Thomas McInerney, however, predicted that `'most of the Republican Guard would be destroyed within 72 to 96 hours once the fighting starts.''

Elite of the elite

Saddam's Republican Guard emerged from Iraq's bloody war with Iran during the 1980s as highly regarded and caused considerable concern among U.S. generals as they planned the gulf war.

The Medina Division distinguished itself in Basra defending the vital southern port city from Iranian forces after they invaded the Al Faw peninsula in 1986.

The Medina unit was deployed then in a series of defense rings around Basra much in the same way it is now around Baghdad. Without the determined Medina Division, the Iranians would have penetrated the Iraqi lines.

In early 1988, the unit was deployed to Basra again in anticipation of another Iranian offensive.

As Saddam's regular army crumbled in 1991, the Republican Guard's Medina, Hammurabi, Tawakalna and Nebuchadnezzar divisions fought U.S. forces, although they all eventually fled.

After the gulf war, the Republican Guard established itself as an intimidating domestic force, quickly and brutally suppressing the Shiite rebellion against Saddam in and around Basra.

Since 1997, the Medina Division has been assigned almost exclusively to protect Baghdad, which now might turn out to be its last stand.

Saddam doesn't want the battle to enter the streets of Baghdad, but he is reportedly prepared to withdraw the Medina Division and other Republican Guard units back into the city if necessary.

`Destroy and defeat'

To defend Baghdad, the Republican Guard has been establishing two defensive rings. The first is about 50 miles outside Baghdad, while the second runs along the outskirts of the city.

"When the enemy approaches with its infantry and armored units to storm our defensive position, we will absorb the momentum of its offensive through the successive defense lines, destroy him and defeat him," Saddam said in a January speech to his top officers. "That will be the fate of all invaders."

If that fails, there is considerable debate about whether or not Saddam will resort to chemical weapons.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, some Republican Guard units, including the Medina Division are equipped with chemical protective gear.

Joseph Wilson, former acting U.S. ambassador to Iraq, predicted that when Saddam's regime makes its final stand, it will likely include weapons of mass destruction.

`'I don't think the Arab world would be as revolted as we would be if he uses these weapons for territorial defense,'' Wilson said.

Saddam is believed to have substantial stores of the nerve agent VX, and he has reportedly authorized some of his field commanders to use chemical weapons.

Rhame predicted coalition troops are now too close to Baghdad for Saddam to use nerve gas.

"If the wind changes directions, he could kill huge numbers of his own people in Baghdad,'' he said. `'The closer you get to Baghdad, the probability that he'll use chemical agents goes down exponentially."