Analysis: Ze'ev Schiff on desperate moves by the Iraqi army
Two weeks after the beginning of the war in Iraq, the first cracks are visible in the Iraqi army, in general, and in the Republican Guard divisions, in particular.
Two of those divisions, the armored Medina and the infantry Baghdad division, were bashed with air strikes near Karbala. To block the hole, the Iraqi command decided to send in the only two Republican Guards in the region - Adnan and Nevuchadnetsar - which were in the north. The diversion of forces from north Iraq will enable the Americans to take over the Kirkuk oil fields much faster.
The big and crucial battle took place Tuesday and Wednesday near Karbala, in the outer defense ring south of Baghdad. Due to the harsh blow to the two Republican Guard divisions, the Iraqi commanders decided on a few moves to prevent the allied forces' advance toward the capital.
At first, they moved forces from two armored divisions - Hamourabi and Nida - deployed in the inner defense ring closer to Baghdad, to the gap area. More essentially, they decided to move south the infantry division Nevuchadnetsar and the mechanized division Adnan. In addition, two regular army divisions from the northern forces' deployment were sent south.
But these are desperate moves to a large extent, indicating the Iraqi commanders' plight. They, too, must be skeptical about the ability of infantry divisions like Nevuchadnetsar to fill the the gap left by the armored forces that were hit in the south. They also understand that blocking the gap in Baghdad's southern defense ring creates a new gap - in the city's northern defense ring.
Had Turkey allowed American troops to enter Iraq from its territory, the coalition forces could have advanced faster to Baghdad from the north. With the forces they have in the area today, the Americans could take over the oil fields in the Kirkuk region. If this happens soon, it will be a strategic success, since the American forces have already taken over the Romeilah oil fields in the Basra region.
The recent developments are not coincidental. The American army has managed to implement the plan formulated in the past week. The Iraqi command foresaw some of the plan, but there was little its soldiers could do to halt it. While the Americans have complete air control, enabling them to "read" the regional battle picture and movements in real time, the Iraqi forces have no air cover. Now, it is only a matter of time until the American forces close in on the Iraqi capital and put it under siege.
However, the continuation of the war also depends on the extent of losses and damages incurred by the Iraqi divisions, especially the Republican Guard, in the next battles. It is not clear whether some of these forces will manage to retreat into Baghdad but, even if they do, a frightened bolt into town may damage the Iraqi morale and expedite the army's collapse. Despite the success of the past 24 hours, the U.S. soldiers still face a difficult battle for the Iraqi capital, in which they will try to capture President Saddam Hussein and his assistants, or strike them.
Meanwhile, the rumors that Saddam may have been badly hurt in one of the bombings in the early stages of the war are spreading. They strengthened after Saddam failed to appear on Tuesday, as promised, in a speech to the nation on Iraqi television. Instead, Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Said A-Sahaf read a statement in the name of his leader. Many think the numerous Islamic calls in the speech, including the call for jihad against "the evil murderers," are another reflection of the Iraqi leadership's plight.
Various intelligence experts, including Israeli ones, are analyzing Saddam's two last photographed appearances from March 20 and 24, which are different in several aspects. So far, there is no confirmation to the rumors that Saddam was badly hurt or is no longer alive.