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Daily News (New York) March 31, 2003

Torturous Turf Lies Ahead

2 routes into Baghdad will test troops' mettle

By Paul H.B. Shin

When U.S. and British troops make a final push from the south to attack Baghdad, the terrain will force them through two treacherous bottlenecks - the Karbala Gap and Kut.

For tanks and other heavy mechanized units rumbling over land, these are the only available corridors to the Iraqi capital, because the areas surrounding them are crisscrossed by irrigation canals and dotted with boggy marshlands, military analysts said.

"It's going to slow down the war effort considerably," said Pat Garrett, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org who has been tracking troop movements in Iraq.

"The reason why we haven't seen more momentum in these areas, as we have in previous areas, is there's a significant change in the terrain," Garrett said.

The Karbala Gap is a densely populated strip of land about 50 miles south of Baghdad, wedged between Razaza Lake to the west and the Euphrates River to the east. Entrenched beyond the 20-mile-wide gap are some of Saddam Hussein's most well-equipped and well-trained troops, the elite Republican Guard.

"Our strategy consists of fighting to the end and everywhere," Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashem Ahmad said yesterday.

Analysts said the Iraqi strategy will be to inflict as many casualties as possible on coalition troops in the gap.

Tanks and heavy artillery from the Republican Guard's Medina Division likely will use mosques and shrines in the holy city of Karbala as cover to rain shells and mortar fire on approaching troops.

U.S.-led forces continued to battle Iraqi Army and paramilitary units in Karbala yesterday, killing 11 civilians and injuring 28, Ahmad said.

At dawn, soldiers from the Army 7th Infantry Regiment watched Warthog attack jets dive in and strafe four armored Iraqi vehicles.

The 1st Marine Division, with as many as 35,000 soldiers, 100 M-1 Abrams tanks and many amphibious assault vehicles, yesterday drew near the other chokepoint - Kut.

Kut, which means "fort" in Arabic, is a town 100 miles southeast of Baghdad on the banks of the Tigris River. It is surrounded by a vast expanse of marshland dotted with shallow lagoons, which is why coalition troops will be forced to take Highway 7 through the town, analysts said.

Enemy's elite division

Along the way to the capital, the units can expect fierce resistance from the Guard's Baghdad Division. The division has about 8,000 of Iraq's best troops and is equipped with artillery and formidable Soviet-made T-72 tanks.

Seizing control of the Karbala Gap and Kut, military officials said, would punch crippling holes in Iraqi defenses and allow for a two-pronged attack from the south.

GRAPHIC ATTACKING BAGHDAD.

Karbala Gap (50 miles south of Baghdad) The most direct route to Baghdad is a dangerous 20-mile-wide bottleneck. Defended by the Republican Guard.

KUT (100 miles southeast of Baghdad) Divisions will travel on a highway surrounded by marshland and shallow lagoons. Defended by the Republican Guard.


Copyright 2003, Daily News, L.P.