21-day campaign that ended Saddam's brutal oppression
ON THE windswept deck of the USS Bunker Hill, a sudden rainstorm further along the Persian Gulf had taken the ship’s meteorologist, Gil Matthews, by surprise. Discomfited by the failure of the multi-million-dollar technology at his disposal, he looked towards the Iraqi coast, 25 miles away, and pondered how long the storm would take to pass.
Far below deck, oblivious to the weather, Petty Naval Officer Clayton Bartel wiped the sweat from his brow as he prepared to make his mark on history. Moments earlier, the 28-year-old from Massachusetts had received the direct order from the bridge that he would fire the opening salvo in the war against Iraq.
Taking a deep breath, Bartel pressed the highlighted space on his computer touch-screen marked EXECUTE - and four Tomahawk missiles exploded into the night.
Fifteen minutes later, sirens wailed in the heart of Baghdad as the Tomahawks ended their brief but deadly journey on the roof of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace. Simultaneously, two F-117A Nighthawk stealth bombers swooped from the sky to release four 2,000lb bunker-busting bombs on the same target.
On the other side of the world, shortly after watching the bombs hit their target, in grainy black and white "real time", George W Bush sat at his Oval Office desk and changed his blue tie for a red one, carefully brushing the fluff from his dark suit. At his elbows were framed photographs of his wife, Laura, and their twin daughters, turned to face the camera.
Just before speaking to the world to announce the start of the war to remove Saddam, he caught the eye of an aide waiting in the wings and raised his left hand in a fist, shouting: "I feel good!" It was 8pm on Wednesday, 19 March, and the enemy had been engaged.
The surprise strike on Saddam’s presidential palace had been secretive and unexpected, and it took British military chiefs at US central command in Qatar by surprise. Some were even seen crowding around television screens to watch the attack unfolding live on Sky News and CNN.
The original battle-plan envisaged a "shock and awe" sound-and-light display across Baghdad, courtesy of a vast bombardment of sea-launched cruise missiles. But, for now, Shock and Awe would have to wait; George Tenet, the director of the CIA, informed the White House that intelligence on the ground had identified a "target of opportunity" in Baghdad. That target was Saddam himself.
He was said to be meeting senior members of his regime on the outskirts of the capital and the CIA wanted a surgical strike. The president gave his consent and Clayton Bartel executed the order.
The surgical strike missed or, more likely, according to the Americans, Saddam got out just in time. But a clear message had been sent: the allies had special forces on the ground in the heart of Baghdad, and, if the first attempt on Saddam’s life had failed, there would be many more to come.
CIA paramilitaries and US Delta Force operatives were already deep within enemy territory. In the southern port of Umm Qasr, up to 200 Special Air Service and Special Boat Service troops were also at work, having sailed into the harbour in traditional Arab dhows.
The war was taking shape and analysts across the western world predicted a swift and decisive end to the conflict. Their optimistic assessments were quickly rethought; within two hours of the opening assault on Baghdad, radar batteries in Kuwait detected the launch of a two Scud missiles from within Iraqi territory. The sound of air-raid sirens in Kuwait City sent 2.6 million residents dashing for cover, bringing back unhappy memories of 1991.
Yet the Scud attack was a mere blip compared with the power of "Shock and Awe", which was launched at midnight on Friday, 21 March; 300 cruise missiles fired from US ships and Royal Navy submarines slammed into targets around Baghdad. As the world looked on, wave after wave of allied aircraft joined the attack, led by the huge B52 bombers flying from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, and B1 Lancer and B2 stealth bombers based at Diego Garcia. While the bombs dropped, the campfires glowed in the Kuwaiti desert, as British marines and advance US infantrymen began setting light to letters they had received from their wives, girlfriends, sons and daughters back home. They were about to go into battle and, if captured, the enemy could taunt them with their contents.
Hours later, thousands of UK ground troops stood solemnly in a deep semi-circle near the Iraqi border as Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Messenger, the commanding officer of the Royal Marines 40 Commando, addressed them. It was a speech he had been mentally preparing for days. "I am very, very proud to be taking you into battle," he said. "You are the best unit I have ever served in. Do not confuse fear with lack of courage. Fear is something we all have, but courage is what you use to get through that fear. I know when the call comes I won’t be let down by any single one of you. Good luck, trust your instincts, and I'll see you in Iraq."
Within hours, a fleet of helicopters took 900 commandos 40 miles into Iraqi territory, past the anti-aircraft guns on the shoreline and the troops armed with surface-to-air missiles, to Objective Coronado, an oil terminal fed by Iraq’s second-largest field at Romaliah. As the soldiers spilled out on to the sand, their lungs filled with cordite as a furious burst of pink light shot down from the sky; a US Spectre helicopter gunship was attacking an enemy position nearby.
The firefight for the terminal lasted through the night, and it was only as dawn broke that the pitiful state of the opposing soldiers guarding the refinery was revealed. The first white flag - a T-shirt tied to a stick - was hoisted by three Iraqi soldiers in a trench just outside the complex’s north gate.
While the commandos caught their breath, coalition forces elsewhere were already charging through Iraq at an extraordinary rate, towards Basra and Baghdad.
The Black Watch were among those in the vanguard of the offensive push to Basra, Iraq’s second city. The regiment had distinguished itself at Waterloo, Balaclava and Sebastopol, at Ypres, Givenchy, Neuve Chappell and Festubert. Now it was time for its soldiers to distinguish themselves again.
As the allied troops pushed on, there was talk of Baghdad being taken within days. Despite the fears of chemical weapons, of the Republican Guard and the Fedayeen, confidence was high. It didn’t last. Reality hit home as the coalition suffered its first casualties: Royal Marines and US marines died when a Sea Knight helicopter crashed in Kuwait; US and British combat deaths soon followed as it became clear the Iraqi forces were not going to simply melt away before the advance.
The biggest fears of the allies were being recognised as many die-hard loyalists seemed prepared to die for Saddam. Umm Qasr quickly became the stuff of coalition nightmares, as what should have been a walkover became first a skirmish and then the scene of a fierce battle. The scale of the resistance stunned allied forces, who had expected to trundle through on their way north. Tanks, aircraft and heavy artillery had to be brought in to lay siege to the decrepit port and then to engage in shoot-outs through the streets. In the end, it took five days and nights to subdue the town of 4,000 people.
During that early charge across the desert, the veteran ITN reporter Terry Lloyd was among those who lost their lives. Never before had the media been embedded with frontline forces to such an extent. Lloyd was not an "embed", but a "freelance" risking the battlefield with his team, outside the protection of heavy artillery. His corpse was found in a Basra hospital, and ITN later said it had "sufficient evidence" to conclude that US troops had fired on his vehicle. It was not to be the last incident of "friendly fire".
As battles raged around the southern towns, more than a dozen coalition troops went missing in action, presumed dead or captured by the Iraqis.
Days later, there was an outcry after al-Jazeera, the Arab television news network, showed pictures of some of the dead coalition soldiers. Some of the captives were also shown, looking dishevelled, confused, afraid; in Washington the first murmurings were heard about what the effect might be on US public opinion.
As the psychological operations (psyops) were wound up on both sides, Saddam made regular television appearances. It was an attempt by the Iraqis to show the decapitation strike had failed; his language, later taken on and expanded by the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, warned the coalition that they would be repelled.
"The great Iraqi people were doing exceptionally well," Saddam said. He urged his fighters to "cut their throats" and "make them suffer".
As Saddam pronounced in Baghdad, the allied road to the capital was increasingly paved with problems.
There was fierce fighting for days around the towns of Najaf and An Nasiriyah, while the Fedayeen, Saddam’s ultra-loyal militia, dug in for a bitter fight in Basra. Talk of an uprising in the city by local people against the regime proved premature.
When the US announced, a week into the war, that it was sending in 30,000 new troops as reinforcements, the analysis was doom-laden. There was talk of the campaign being bogged down, of military fatigue, of supply problems - and the warm weather was coming.
To the north, however, there were positive signs; 1000 paras were dropped in to link up with and help to direct Kurdish forces, opening up a crucial front to head south towards Baghdad.
The incidents of friendly fire were mounting and there was more flak back home, as retired generals suggested the allied battle-plan was flawed. The relationship between the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Secretary of State, Colin Powell was dissected in minute detail, questions were asked about troop numbers and tactics - and about where the campaign went from here.
When sandstorms halted the advance and turned the desert into a muddy scene from the First World War, military analysts began suggesting the push on Baghdad may take months, not weeks.
The war for "hearts and minds" also turned against the coalition when 15 people died in a Baghdad market bombing. Two days later, the Iraqis said more than 50 were killed in a similar attack. The allies said there was no clear evidence that they were responsible, but substantial damage had been done, and pictures of maimed children in Baghdad hospitals added to the pressure already on Bush and Blair.
The bodies of eight dead Americans were shown on TV, several of them apparently shot in the head. President Bush told a shocked US public that the Iraqis involved would be treated as war criminals.
And then came a new twist, as a suicide bomber drove into a American military checkpoint near Najaf, killing himself and three US marines. The man, later revealed to be a sergeant in the Iraqi army, had waved the troops over to his taxi claiming his vehicle had broken down. He was given a posthumous promotion and his family richly rewarded by Saddam Hussein. Warnings of more suicide bombings were despatched by the Iraqi regime; militant Islamic groups said they were sending willing young people to Baghdad to launch more murderous attacks.
Yet this was a low-point. Despite the apparent shift against the coalition, special forces on the ground and the devastating aerial bombardment were taking a damaging toll on the Iraqis.
There were more setbacks, particularly the shooting of seven Iraqi women and children at a checkpoint, in the jumpy days after the suicide bombing, but suddenly there was progress to report again. Seemingly overnight; far from being bogged down, the allies moved in for the kill.
British forces had made regular raids into Basra and picked off Saddam loyalists. Now they began mopping up opposition around the city and taking control of suburbs. Again, the forces of the Black Watch led the way.
Just over a week ago, thousands of American troops stormed into the "red zone" around Baghdad - and the feared chemical response never came. The Republican Guard, were pounded by air strikes and the circle of resistance around Baghdad was breached again and again. Coalition troops took key bridges, and won firefights. "The dagger is clearly pointed at the heart of Baghdad," said Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks at US Central Command.
In central Iraq, the tide was also turning, as the 3rd Infantry Division powered north to the cheers of civilians. The welcomes they had hoped for finally came, in Najaf and An Nasiriyah.
And the relentless pounding of Baghdad, from the air and sea, continued, further weakening the Iraqi command structure as key Republican Guard positions were destroyed and government buildings were reduced to rubble.
With the war seemingly back on track, the US public was presented with a picture-perfect Hollywood moment - the dramatic rescue of captured US Private Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk who had been feared dead and was in danger of becoming a powerful symbol in Middle America of a war gone awry.
In full view of an army camera team tailing the special forces unit, Private Lynch was plucked from her bed in Saddam Hospital in An Nasiriyah, where she had lain with broken limbs and gunshot wounds since an ambush a week earlier. "America doesn’t leave its heroes behind," said a commander at headquarters in Qatar.
It was a pivotal, optimistic moment and seemed to provide a powerful push forward for the allies. The "tipping-point", when Saddam’s regime finally collapsed, was approaching.
British forces had completed the encirclement of Basra, as US tanks pushed into the outskirts of Baghdad, capturing the airport with surprising speed and ease despite several fierce exchanges.
Days later, with power palpably draining from the Iraqi regime, and the capital encircled, state television showed pictures of a man in a military beret and moustache walking the streets of Baghdad, trying to look comfortable, exchanging banter with some ordinary Iraqis.
It was attempt to show that Saddam was alive and well and running the show. As an exercise in public relations, it was a failure. Quite why he would have gone walkabout in a city under bombardment was unclear; days later, a Saudi newspaper named the man as a known Saddam body double.
Last Sunday, satisfied that resistance had been ground down, the Desert Rats, 7th Armoured Brigade, led the way into Basra, capturing the city against isolated pockets of resistance, in which three soldiers were killed. It was clear that the local population had lost their fear of their former rulers, and dozens of Fedayeen militiamen who had engaged the British were murdered by Iraqi civilians. The addresses of others were passed to British troops.
But some of the shine of the attack was later dulled by news of the worst "friendly fire" incident of the war when an American pilot dropped a bomb on a convoy on American and Peshmerga special forces in the north, killing 18 people. John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Correspondent, narrowly escaped death.
On Monday, further signs of CIA paramilitaries on the ground in Baghdad emerged after a strike was called in a restaurant in the al Mansour district of the capital. Informants claimed to have spotted Saddam and his sons entering the building.
Whether he was in the building, which was later destroyed, remains a mystery.
On Tuesday, as Saddam's power in Baghdad continued to evaporate, American tanks stormed into the heart of the capital’s financial and administrative centre, and US troops combed through Saddam's presidential palaces along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In the midst of the coalition advances on Baghdad the war had also produced its greatest media star in the form of the splendid anti-hero, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Saddam’s hapless information minister.
To him fell the task of explaining the regime’s battlefield successes to Western reporters camped at the Hotel Palestine. In one memorable press conference he even struggled to be heard over the rumble of US tanks and aircraft closing on Baghdad. "The fight continues," he shouted. "We are inflicting heavy losses and hundreds of their soldiers have begun to kill themselves."
As he spoke, members of the US Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment posed for the cameras, nonchalantly smoking in one of Saddam’s palaces.
To the journalists who had come to read the minds of the Iraqi regime, the first sign that Saddam’s inner circle had truly given up came on Wednesday with the sudden disappearance of Mr al-Sahhaf and his moustachioed minders from the Iraqi Information Ministry.
In the words of the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohammed Aldouri, the game was up, and jubilant Iraqis were dancing around the toppled statue of Saddam.
Saddam Hussein’s rule came to an end not in a bombed out presidential bunker, or a bloody Arab Stalingrad fought in the alleyways of the Iraqi capital, or even with an assassin’s bullet in an opulent overseas hideaway. Instead, it ended in a scene loaded with symbolism in downtown Baghdad. As forces swept into the eastern part of the city, it was the impoverished people of Saddam City, the capital’s overpopulated Shia stronghold, who first rose to celebrate the demise of a tyrant who had brutally ruled Iraq for the past 25 years.
With the Iraqi police vanished and the voice of al-Sahhaf silenced, the Shias of Saddam City beat their chests to celebrate the religious identity that had been suppressed by the Sunni-dominated regime. US troops were hit with flowers, rather than bullets, and cheered with anti-Saddam slogans. "There is no more Saddam Hussein," people chanted.
But along with the jubilation, many Iraqis in Baghdad celebrated the end of dictatorship with looting. As they crushed the portraits of Saddam, they pillaged government buildings, stripping apart everything they could. Similar scenes of chaos engulfed Basra.
It had taken 21 days of often ferocious fighting to destroy Saddam’s regime, against the 100 hours of ground war that had been necessary to expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991.
In the wake of victory, or at least the initial victory, as US troops scoured the abandoned headquarters of Iraq’s 51st Mechanised Division in Baghdad, the reasons behind the apparent lack of Iraqi resistance in the past week were slowly beginning to come clear.
Files scattered on the floor of the commander’s office detailed a variety of plans and the training that was presumably undergone to prepare for their execution. The war planning room was lined with maps showing the probable lines of allied attack, fairly accurately anticipating the direction of the allied assault, and the positions of Iraqi units.
"Once there is an attack, all camouflaged troops should spread to confront the main threats coming from the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders," read one document, without explaining what it meant by camouflaged troops. "By using this strategy we are preventing our enemy from infiltrating then attacking the strategic target of Basra city."
Another document listed reasons for desertions, including lack of water for bathing, no ice and family problems. It did not mention the demoralising effect of intense and well-targeted allied bombardment. A document on raising morale instructed officers to incite their troops to fight a Muslim holy war, or jihad.
"Muslim armies in the early days of Islam beat the Roman and Persian armies with the power of faith and jihad," the document read.
But on the whole, the Iraqi tactical preparation seems not to have been influenced by its own government’s defiant rhetoric, and had an almost fatalistic tone. For example, one document called for training in how to fight "when the enemy has the upper hand in the air and in electronic warfare." Other documents focused on guerrilla survival techniques like hiding in "back areas," digging wells, living on farms and depending on alternative means of communication.
As it turned out, American and British technological superiority placed the Iraqi army at a decisive disadvantage, and only their desperate guerrilla operations caused greater disruption of allied plans than conventional defensive tactics.
Reconstruction will now follow, democratic structures are planned, and coalition forces have promised to make a shattered country prosperous but according to most the reputation of the UN is in pieces. Although it emerged yesterday that a turf war had already broken out in Washington, with Colin Powell's State Department scrapping with Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon over Iraq's post-war settlement. But for now, there will be barely suppressed jubilation in the Oval Office and Downing Street, as the key figures in both administrations celebrate a mission audacious in its planning and execution.
For George Bush in particular, a president elected by a whisker in Florida, he has won a very complex political and military victory. Members of the tightly-knit Bush clan are very conscious of their emergence as an American political dynasty. It will also not be lost on the current President Bush that in destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein, he has completed his father’s unfinished business.
Day-by-day account of conflict
20 March: George Bush gives his approval for the "decapitation" attempt on Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime. Thirty-six cruise missiles and satellite-guided bombs hit Baghdad. Mr Bush confirms war has begun to "disarm Iraq and free its people".
21 March: Three armoured columns of British and US troops cross into Iraq from Kuwait. Allied air raids light up the sky in Baghdad. Royal Marines advance up the Al Faw peninsula to secure oil installations. A helicopter crash kills eight Britons and four Americans.
22 March: The port of Umm Qasr is surrounded by British and US troops, but not entered. Similar tactics are employed in other towns in southern Iraq. Black smoke billows from the Rumaila oilfields. The British death toll rises when two Royal Navy helicopters collide.
23 March: US soldiers captured after taking a wrong turn in Nasiriyah are paraded on Iraqi television and other Arab channels, prompting fierce criticism from coalition leaders. An RAF Tornado is shot down by a US Patriot missile when it is mistaken for an Iraqi scud.
24 March: The US 3rd Infantry Regiment engages in fierce fighting to secure its first crossing of the Euphrates. Saddam appears on television and says "victory is near". The Pentagon insists there is nothing in the pictures to suggest they are live but admit footage of a downed Apache helicopter surrounded by Iraqis is genuine.
25 March: The Allied advance is held up by a fierce sandstorm that reduces visibility to just a few metres. British troops inch their way towards Basra, as the first reports of an "uprising" by civilians in Iraq’s second city turn out to be short-lived.
26 March: An explosion rips through a market in a district of Baghdad, killing at least 14 people. US Central Command appears to admit it was caused by one of their missiles but this is later denied by the Pentagon, which states it was an Iraqi missile. The US 3rd Infantry Regiment says it is 50 miles from Baghdad.
27 March: Tony Blair and Mr Bush hold a summit at Camp David to discuss the progress and reconstruction. Both men insist the fighting may take longer than many imagine. Mr Blair condemns the broadcast of pictures of the bodies of two British soldiers killed in action.
28 March: British ship Sir Galahad began its approach to the port of Umm Qasr, behind a navy mine-hunter. There are humanitarian worries it will be hard to distribute its 600 tonnes of food because of a lack of security. Mr Blair’s claim two British soldiers had been executed provokes a row as their families had been told the pair were killed in battle.
29 March: An Iraqi army sergeant stops at a US checkpoint near Najaf and beckons troops over. He detonates a car bomb, killing himself and three US soldiers. Commanders order US troops to ensure tighter controls at roadblocks.
30 March: British commandos stage a dawn raid on the village of Abu al-Qassib in southern Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers are taken prisoner, but a Royal Marine is killed and several others injured when their launch comes under attack as they try to clear waterways on the Al Faw peninsula.
31 March: Americans press on towards Baghdad as ferocious fire-fights lead to numerous civilian casualties. On Hindiyah bridge, south of Baghdad, a fierce gun battle traps a family. The father is killed and the woman’s hip is shattered by a bullet as she awaits help. Near Basra, British troops are killed when an A-10 plane attacks their vehicle
1 April: Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, claims it is "increasingly probable" the first of two explosions which caused a large number of civilian casualties in a Baghdad market was the result of a malfunctioning Iraqi missile, not an Allied one.
2 April: US army Private Jessica Lynch is rescued by US special forces after being held captive in a hospital for ten days. Eleven bodies were found with her, some of them American.
3 April: The war enters its third week. US forces attack Baghdad’s main airport. For the first time, some Iraqi Muslim clerics ask their people not to resist. The much-vaunted last stand by Saddam’s elite Republican Guard in front of the capital fails to materialise.
4 April: US commanders report some resistance in the outskirts of Baghdad, but the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf claims the Americans had suffered "huge losses, definitely".
5 April: The first American troops enter Baghdad by staging a "thunder run" of armour through the city’s south-west suburbs, ending at the renamed Baghdad International Airport. Saddam, or one of his doubles, staged his own PR coup by taking a walkabout through another suburb.
6 April: After three weeks on the outskirts, British forces enter the heart of Basra. Troops from the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, meet "isolated pockets" of resistance. After another night of bombing in Baghdad, there are signs that the Baath regime is unravelling.
7 April: American tanks and armoured vehicles roll into Baghdad, through the "hands of victory" triumphal arches. Troops lounge in Saddam’s bombed-out palaces. British troops say they have the body of "Chemical" Ali Hassan al-Majid in Basra, after he was killed in an airstrike. Looters run amok in Basra.
8 April: Four large bombs are dropped on a restaurant in the Mansur district of Baghdad after intelligence reports suggest Saddam is meeting with his sons. Nine are killed, including at least one child, but there is no confirmation of the Iraqi leader’s whereabouts. Three journalists die when US bombs and shells hit an office and hotel.
9 April: The world watches as a giant statue of Saddam is toppled by a crowd of Iraqis assisted by American soldiers. Saddam’s fate remains unclear. Kurdish sources say he had fled to his home- town of Tikrit in the north.
10 April: US-backed Kurdish forces occupy the centre of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Government buildings are set ablaze and a statue of Saddam is pulled down by the crowds. Iraqi Shia Muslim leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who has returned from exile, and another cleric are murdered in Najaf. Mr Blair and Mr Bush address Iraqis on a new TV station.
11 April: Widespread looting continues in the centre of Baghdad. The US military issues "playing cards", showing 55 key people from the former Iraqi leadership it wants captured or confirmed dead. Two Iraqi children are killed and nine other civilians are injured after US marines open fire on a vehicle approaching a checkpoint at speed in Nasiriyah.
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