Perched atop an M-88 tank recovery vehicle, I rode with an immense column of 7,000 military vehicles of the 3rd Infantry Division rumbling north toward Baghdad on Friday. We faced only minimal Iraqi opposition along the way — a few dozen troops quickly overwhelmed by the advancing American force — and a few friendly Bedouins.
The U.S. advance into southern Iraq began with an artillery barrage. As U.S. guns dropped shells onto two Iraqi forward observation posts, the column I travel with waited and watched as the posts — each holding 10 to 30 Iraqi soldiers — took a beating. Officers of the 3rd Infantry Division told us these posts had to be eliminated to prevent the Iraqis from reporting the size and direction of the American advance.
Our column thrust into Iraq at about 10 p.m. local time Thursday, one of the huge division’s lead elements. The lead forces grabbed a foothold in Iraq, then paused to allow the rest of the division to catch up.
By Friday afternoon, as we rolled steadily north through the Iraqi desert, the troops had come up with a name for the route: the Hurricane Highway. There are no roads out here: We’re trying to follow in the tracks of the vehicles ahead of us on sand that has been packed down and hardened by tanks, Humvees and other division vehicles.
WORRYING ABOUT OLD BOMBS
The troops’ main concern right now is unexploded ordnance from the last Gulf War. My vehicle has passed several cluster bombs just a few feet from the M-88’s tracks. From time to time, we’ll see the wreckage of an Iraqi tank or another military vehicle standing in mute testimony to the beating Iraqi forces took in 1991.
It appears that the goal right now is just to keep this big train of vehicles going. The tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles can go faster but the column is moving at the speed of its slowest vehicles — and the column includes everything from the limber M-88 to tanker trucks bearing fuel or water.
So far, the troops have faced very little Iraqi opposition — we haven’t encountered any Iraqi soldiers, although we have occasionally seen Bedouin women and children, waving as we roll past.
The troops were told there were three Iraqi regular army divisions ahead of us, but military radio has been reporting that at least one of them has surrendered, although we cannot confirm that.
The U.S. commanders had not anticipated any serious opposition in the southern Iraqi desert. The divisions deployed here — units of the conscript-filled regular Iraqi Army, are ill-paid, ill-trained and ill-equipped. The main offensive move against them at the moment is a huge psychological warfare effort to convince them that resistance is futile and to lay down their arms. U.S. commanders here carry what they call “capitulation documents,” ready-made paperwork that allows Iraqi commanders to sign on the dotted line and surrender their troops.
OUR REAL TARGETS
The lack of action at the moment is surreal, but 3rd Division officers and troops do not take it for granted. They know their northerly direction is likely meant to take the division to Baghdad, where two rings of Iraqi forces very different from the cowed and demoralized regular army are encircling the Iraqi capital.
One is the Republican Guard, the elite infantry and armored units lavished with Iraq’s best equipment and paid well for their loyalty to the regime. Their tanks and artillery are dug in around two areas north and south of Baghdad.
Within the capital itself, an even more zealous defender of the regime: the Special Republican Guard. This unit, commanded by one of Saddam’s sons, is positioned for regime defense — and for urban combat. Those are the real targets of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Whether we will continue on to Baghdad non-stop is not something officers will discuss. American commanders are trying to assess the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign, and there are various contingencies that would be put into place if parts of the Iraqi military or regime were to capitulate.
LIFE IN THE DESERT CARAVAN
Since the unit I’m traveling with was the first into Iraq, we got a chance to get a few hours sleep. In the live television broadcasts we have been able to beam back from the front of this vehicle as it moves through the desert, Sgt. Joe Todd, who is manning the M-88’s main gun, often comes into view. Todd is a Gulf War veteran and a soldier who many of the younger men in the unit look up to.
This is a challenging time for the M-88’s two-man crew. If the 3rd Division continues its drive north without stopping, as it has for the past 17 hours, the crew will have to operate on adrenaline. The driver — a 20-year-old private named Trinity McClain from Brooklyn, N.Y., knows he will have to stay awake for the whole trip.
KEEPING US SUPPLIED
For the last 17 hours, in fact, we have not really stopped. Sunglasses protect my eyes from blowing sand, but every time I face forward I swallow a lot of dust. Our meals have been MREs, the military’s “meals ready to eat, mixed with a lot of fine Iraqi sand.
Those of us covering the conflict tend to focus on the tanks and the Bradley fighting vehicles because they pack the Army’s offensive punch. But none of these things works without the logistical units — the M-88s that repair breakdowns, the tanker trucks and medical units, the efforts of the thousands of people back in Kuwait, in Qatar, in air bases in the Mideast or on those aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
In World War II, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed Desert Fox who commanded Germany’s Afrika Korps, said “war is decided before the first shot is fired, by the quartermasters.” It was his inability to secure fuel and other supplies from Germany that led to Rommel’s eventual withdrawal from the north African desert.
Today, with the 3rd Infantry in Iraq, the troops moving forward know all about Rommel’s problems. And they know, too, that as they march toward Baghdad, a huge line of support will be right behind them, making sure they don’t share the fate of the Afrika Korps.
(David Bloom is an NBC News correspondent and co-anchor of “Weekend Today.” He is embedded with the U.S. 3d Infantry Division, which is advancing into southern Iraq.)