Marine General: Iraq War Pause
'Could Not Have
Come At Worse Time'
Inside The Pentagon Elaine M. Grossman
October 2, 2003
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The five-day "pause" U.S. troops took before capturing Baghdad last spring
"could not have come at a worse time" for Marine Corps forces poised outside
the Iraqi capital, according to Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st
Marine Division. The Marines were told to put the reins on the Baghdad offensive
just as Mattis' troops became highly vulnerable to Iraqi counterattack, he
told Inside the Pentagon in a Sept. 25 interview.
Top wartime commanders have insisted there was no real pause in combat
during the war because fierce ground battles and heavy air attacks continued
throughout late March (ITP, May 8, p1). But it was clear at the time that
the impending attack on Baghdad was put on hold beginning March 26 and continuing
through the end of the month, InsideDefense.com first reported March 25. "We're
going to take the next couple days — the next several if necessary — to
concentrate on the enemy where he's at," a top coalition commander said at
a daily battlefield update briefing held March 26 at the Camp Doha, Kuwait,
ground combat headquarters. With a sandstorm imposing "zero visibility" around
Baghdad, "we've got to finish up taking care of all these bastards down here,"
said the commander, referring to irregular militias that threatened lagging
U.S. supply lines in southern Iraq. A March attack on one convoy resulted
in 11 U.S. casualties and the capture of seven troops, including Army Pfc.
Jessica Lynch. U.S. forces moved into Baghdad in early April and quickly captured
the city, facing only light resistance.
"I didn't want the pause. Nothing was holding us up," Mattis told ITP.
"The toughest order I had to give [in] the whole campaign was to call back
the assault units when the pause happened." Mattis said most of his division
was moving up Route 1 towards Baghdad, while one Marine unit was heading to
Al Kut to pin down the Baghdad Division, when the pause was imposed. He said
the order was handed down from above, but he did not know exactly where the
idea of a pause originated. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander
of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and Army Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, the 3rd
Infantry Division commander, shared the desire to press on to Baghdad instead
of pause, Mattis said.
"There was some thought about putting up operating bases outside of Baghdad
and making raids into it," Mattis told ITP. "But clearly Baghdad was falling
if we went in." The general said his forces were at a critical junction about
100 kilometers southeast of Baghdad where it would have been unclear to Iraqi
commanders whether the Marines would proceed directly into southeast Baghdad,
or come around from the northeast. Hooking around from the northeast would
allow the Marines to exploit a gap between two batteries of Iraqi artillery
"What I don't want to do is reveal what I'm going to do because the enemy's
artillery from Al Kut can only reach this far," said Mattis, pointing to a
map he had scrawled on scrap paper. "And the enemy's artillery out of the
Al Nida Division can only reach this far. And that seam is a way for me to
get across." Mattis' 1st Division was about to cross a critical bridge over
the Tigris River "when I finally get told about the pause," he said. "So now
what I can't do is leave that road open because they'll figure it out that
they've got this thing uncovered and I've got a way across the Tigris," he
said. "So I have to order these guys who have lost Marines, killed and wounded
now, to come back," Mattis continued. "And Marines don't like doing that."
He bought time by sending a light armored reconnaissance unit directly
northwest towards Baghdad. Mattis said it was akin to telegraphing the Iraqis,
"Hey, Diddle Diddle, here come the dumb Marines right up the middle." In fact,
he wanted to avoid that obvious approach because it was the most heavily defended.
Meanwhile, Mattis readied the 5th Marine Regiment for the main attack from
the northeast. But just one day before the pause was lifted, then-Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein's military "figured out we're using this roadbed, Highway 1,"
Mattis reports. "They come up and start putting in tanks and artillery and
troops, dumping them off in school buses."
At the same time, there was serious concern about the Iraqi military using
chemical weapons to defend Baghdad. "Here's the prevailing wind in Iraq" moving
south towards troops, Mattis said. "And there I have the division, two-thirds
of the division strung out along this. So, no, I don't want to pause." This
was one of two locations where the Marines used Mark-77 firebombs — something
the Marines loosely term "napalm" — to clear foliage during the war, he said.
"But here the enemy was figuring it out. So the last thing we wanted to do was pause," Mattis said. "It's at the worst possible time frame."
Once given the go-ahead to move on Baghdad, the Marines easily overran
the newly deployed Iraqi forces, he said. "And now I pack up 5th Marines and
I say, 'Go.' And they cross Saddam Canal and the Tigris River in hours," said
Mattis. The Iraqi commanders had failed to capitalize on the American troops'
vulnerability outside Baghdad during the pause. "The generals were dumber
than you-know-what," Mattis said. "They were real dumb." Mattis attributed the Iraqi failure to anticipate the Marine attack to "incompetence." But he
said the Iraqi forces ultimately did blow up the only two bridges for 40 kilometers
across the Diyala River to try and blunt the Marine attack. "That's why we
were held up outside of Baghdad," said Mattis, adding that was "after the
pause." "You don't blow bridges in a country full of rivers unless you have
to," Mattis said.
"And then by the time they realized this [was the attack route], it was
all over. We killed everybody there and [suddenly] we're across and we're
on our way." Mattis said his forces "could have grabbed" the bridges earlier
but he opted not to. "Looking back now, maybe I should have, I don't know.
But the bottom line is we had a lot of urban fighting going on there and I
had to get that area cleared out before I ran the bridge companies out there."
Mattis said he anticipated before the war that Iraqi irregular forces
the Fedayeen Saddam militia — would threaten the long U.S. supply lines en
route to Baghdad. But he said the Marines were ready for such a contingency.
A Corps motto, "Every Marine a Rifleman," meant "I was not concerned about my supply lines," Mattis said. "The combat service support troops had been warned you are going to have to fight your way through to get supplies to us. Every Marine is trained as a rifleman, unlike some services. And this was not a concern to us."
Army leaders have recently said that, given the lessons from the Iraq war,
they will provide additional marksmanship training to support forces. In addition
to consolidating supply lines, the coalition ground commander used the pause
in attack on Baghdad to ensure that Iraqi Republican Guard forces defending
the capital were sufficiently weakened through ground and air attacks, senior
Mattis believes some U.S. leaders overestimated the strength of the Iraqi
forces, though. "What would you do if you hated Saddam, you hadn't been paid
in three months, you didn't get fed daily, and the war's over because the
Americans just showed up? You're going to go home," he said.
Mattis said he thinks some commanders and intelligence analysts became overly concerned with counting Iraqi units, interpreting "icons" on a map as evidence of military force rather than trying to read the situation on the ground. "I think that what happened [is] we had all of these icons, and
because those things are countable, and satellites count things, and people
like counting things — they like certainty
— we got out of [thinking] what's
most [important in] war. It's what's in a Marine's or soldier's heart, that's
what war is. We knew their hearts weren't going to be in it." He said "these
icons remained" throughout the war, even though it meant little to him when
intelligence reports "counted troops [with] 85 percent strength, [in] this
division in this sector," Mattis said. "We bombed them but we didn't get good
BDA [battle damage assessment]. You can't ever get good BDA. How do you know
if you really hit the tank or you hit the decoy tank?"
Eventually, he said, some command center officers acknowledged they were
uncertain what to make of units on the map that seemed to evaporate on the
battlefield. "Well, the reason is all the troops just walked home," Mattis
said. "They left the tanks there." He said there were "still people around
there because civilians came around to rip off everything they could and go.
So [some assumed] it must still be active." He added: "We never expected this
army, I guess, to evaporate the way it did. Some people didn't expect it to,
let me put it that way." In the end, Mattis said, he attempted to make the
most of the pause before attacking Baghdad. "Wars never go the way you want them to," he said. "Once we were freed up to get going again [and] we were
on our way, I took advantage of the pause. I got more guns and ammo and fuel
up there, so no sweat." — Elaine M. Grossman