Well We Found Out Why Ground Troops

*Well, we found out why the ground troops moved in without a preceding air campaign. The air campaign had been planned for Friday, and was not moved up because the US was waiting for assessment from its attempt to kill Saddam by Tomahawk Cruise missiles. Apparently he was wounded but is not dead, though his younger son Qusay may be dead. I watched the bombs raining down on key Baath ministry buildings and Saddam palaces in Baghdad with a mixture of horror, unease, and yet hope for the future. I hope relatively few people died. It was night, and the ministry buildings would not have had a lot of ordinary employees. If the strikes were precise enough, they damage should not have spilled over much from the buildings, which anyway were not near a major residential district. But the hope for the future bit is also important. Those ministries were like vampire nests, sucking the blood of ordinary Iraqis. They were the places where the chemical attacks on Kurdish civilians were planned out. I still remember seeing pictures of dead Kurdish children with their lunch pails in the aftermath of Halabja. They were the places where the deaths of 60,000 protesters against the regime in spring of 1991 were planned out. The draining of the marsh Arabs’ swamps and the forcing of them into Basra slums were planned out in those buildings. A great center of iniquity has ceased to exist. War is a terrible thing, and since I lived through the first years of the Lebanese civil war, when I was near shelling, I know the fear and bewilderment and damage it does. But it is not a bad thing that those ministries of evil have been reduced to rubble.

*So far 6 Americans have died, 2 in combat, along with British troops killed in a helicopter. My heart goes out to their loved ones, and to the loved ones of the innocent Iraqis so far killed in the bombing. Human life is precious. We have a heavy burden to redeem it by working for a more peaceful and more democratic world in the aftermath of this war.

*There are varying interpretations of the war as it unfolded Friday and Saturday. The 3rd Infantry Division columns heading north for Baghdad ran into no significant opposition, apparently because there are few Iraqi troops left in the south. On the other hand, the Marines who approached the port of Umm Qasr were pinned down just inside the Iraqi border by unexpectedly heavy resistance when Iraqi troops fired sagger anti-tank missiles at them. They had to call for British artillery support. After two hours of bombardment, the Iraqi positions fell quiet. About 15,000 British-led forces then took Umm Qasr, where 30 Iraqi troops surrendered to them. It is hard to know whether the saggers were being fired by a large Iraqi force or a small but determined one. The US Marines in the force over-zealously raised US and Marine flags for a little bit, but were told to run the Iraqi one back up the flagpole by their superiors. The Bush administration wants to retain the symbology of national liberation, not foreign occupation. They also started tearing down all those kitschy huge portraits of Saddam that bedeck the billboards of Iraq like a bad advertising campaign.

Al-Hayat newspaper suggests that Umm Qasr is important because the US can unload there the substantial military equipment it still has in the Persian Gulf. I doubt this is true. Kuwait City is perfectly good for that purpose, and Umm Qasr is from all accounts a dinky little place. Basra would be more important, but both lack deepwater docks. I suspect Kuwait city will continue to be important as the US port of entry. The resistance the US and British got at Umm Qasr may have slowed the largely British advance on Basra, on which they are advancing as I write. They are now on the outskirts of the city and probing its defenses, saying they are in no hurry. They will want to be sure not to run into a lot of unexpected sagger strikes there. Having the British take Basra is eery to a historian, given their invasion of Iraq twice during WW I. And there British forces are around Basra again, almost a century later.


*Iraq’s 51st mechanized division, which guarded the approaches to Basra, surrendered or went home (although a US Division is 15,000 – 20,000 strong, the 51st was just 8000 men and 200 tanks). Obviously, this is the sort of scenario the US was hoping for, but it had not happened on a large scale on Friday. Hundreds of Iraqi troops did surrender, some to traffic control MPs. Others tried to flag down a journalist to surrender to him. US forces approaching al-Nasiriya took some fire and had to halt. From all accounts, not much of the Iraqi army was left in the south, with most good fighting forces drawn up around the capital. Even if those wanted to surrender, they would have to wait until the US forces get near Baghdad. And, there may be some fight in some of them yet. For their sakes, given how badly they are outgunned, one hopes they will have the sense to throw down their weapons, change into civvies, and go home.

*There were rallies against the Iraq war throughout the world on Friday. In Pakistan, most cities saw at least small gatherings, with the largest in Peshawar. The fundamentalist religious parties called for Muslim countries to sever their diplomatic ties with Washington. But, my impression is that the demonstrations were rather small. They could not really target the elected government of PM Jamali, since he also has condemned the war. The demonstrations in the Arab world were also smaller than I would have expected, though maybe they will grow (though the war seems likely to be too short for much momentum to be achieved by its opponents). The ominous thing was that the children of the Egyptian elite at my alma mater, the American University in Cairo, demonstrated against the war in Liberation Square. This development could be ominous for US diplomatic relations with the Arab world, since those relations have for a very long time been only with elites and not with publics.

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