News analysis

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, 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 fire.

"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 officials say.

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