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Savannah Morning News October 15, 2002

Hitting with a heavy fist

By Noelle Phillips

Take a drive around Fort Stewart and look closely at the 3rd Infantry Division's equipment: It's all painted tan.

The color matches the sands of the Kuwaiti desert, signaling the division's focus on desert warfare.

However, the color isn't the only indication that 3rd Division troops might be involved in any plan to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: At least a third of the division's soldiers are already in Kuwait for a training mission called Operation Desert Spring.

"Third Mech. is on everybody's short list for being the obvious unit to lead the charge," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Web site that analyzes security issues around the world.

For now, the United States is waiting for the United Nations and Iraq to work out an agreement for weapons inspectors to return to the country. If those negotiations fail, President Bush has congressional approval to launch a military attack.

The signs of impending battle are everywhere.

Every week, the Department of Defense sends out dozens of press releases quoting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other military leaders, sounding the warnings of looming military action.

And, in the Coastal Empire, soldiers, their anxious families and concerned neighbors wait to see how the diplomatic gamesmanship and war of words will play out.

While the 3rd Division would be at the spear point of any attack, other local forces could be called.

They include:

* 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment -- An elite special operations unit geared for quick, precise attacks.

* 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment -- A unit whose mission is to fly Rangers and other special operations units into combat.

* Nine squadrons of F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort -- These planes take off from aircraft carriers to deliver missiles and bombs on ground targets.

* Georgia National Guard units -- Which include cargo airplanes and air traffic controllers.

So far, most of these units have at least a taste of what may come.

The Rangers, the Marine fighter jets and some of the Air National Guard units have participated in the war on terrorism. The Rangers lost three troops in Operation Enduring Freedom. Two Marine squadrons flew missions over Afghanistan. And the National Guard units have supported the war at home and abroad.

But, the 3rd Division, known as the "Iron Fist" of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps, hasn't been in the fight -- yet.

The recent history of desert warfare, however, shows Fort Stewart soldiers probably would be in the thick of things.

"For folks in our area, particularly in Hinesville, it's going to be 'my loved one' that's going to be gone and put in harm's way," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "War is personal in our neck of the woods."

Here's how it played out before:

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, the U.S. and an international coalition spent six months assembling military forces in the region. The 24th Infantry Division, the unit then headquartered at Fort Stewart, deployed to Saudi Arabia.

(After the Gulf War and during a military downsizing, the 3rd Infantry Division replaced the 24th Division at Fort Stewart.)

First, the U.S.-led coalition bombed Iraq from Air Force planes and with missiles launched from Navy ships. Then, the ground war started; it took less than four days to push the Iraqi military out of Kuwait.

During that mission -- Operation Desert Storm -- Fort Stewart's soldiers pushed through Saudi Arabia, then swept left to cross into Iraq to destroy the enemy as it retreated toward Baghdad.

This time, experts believe there should be a similar military build up, followed by a heavy bombing campaign before any ground war is launched.

Maj. Gen. Leroy Suddath, a retired Special Forces commander, said the United States cannot hold back on resources when plotting the attack, especially since the call for Saddam's ouster has been so loud and prolonged.

"We've never done anything like this before," Suddath said. "We've got to be sure and go at it full force."

No one doubts the U.S. military's power to defeat Saddam's army.

But, once the bombing campaign gives way to a ground invasion, the fighting will be different than what Americans saw in Desert Storm.

In that war, the American tanks and other armored equipment rolled through the desert quickly, taking out the Iraqi armored forces as it went.

Once Iraqi forces reached Baghdad, the American effort ended.

This time, though, U.S. forces will have to move into Baghdad if they are to overthrow Saddam's government.

"That's not going to be easy, either," Suddath said. "He's going to have enough people to stay in the shadows."

Baghdad is a city of 5 million people. The combat will turn into urban fighting rather than desert warfare.

Winning will take a combination of air and ground troops, including Special Forces. But the Special Forces won't function in the same way they were used to uproot the Taliban in Afghanistan, Suddath said.

"I know what the Special Forces can and cannot do," he said. "They cannot stand up to armor and conventional forces."

Maj. Gen. Donald Rosenblum, a retired Army officer who once commanded the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, said the 3rd Division's armor could have a role in urban combat.

The division's tanks could knock down buildings, Rosenblum said. Its artillery could provide fire support for other ground forces. There could even be a call for the Bradley fighting vehicle, the armor used to deliver ground troops to targets.

"You could sit on the end of a street and fire," Rosenblum said.

Local combat veterans said there's one more factor to consider -- Iraq's biological and chemical weapons.

"He will not hesitate to use them," said retired Army Col. Arthur Holmes, who now teaches Junior ROTC at Windsor Forest High School. "That's a very different kind of war."

Opinions vary on the amount of casualties the United States may suffer.

Rosenblum noted that Desert Storm casualty estimates were around 100,000 before the war started. The U.S. only lost 146 in combat. Others experts, such as Holmes, believe the urban fighting -- along with Saddam's chemical and biological weapons -- will lead to a much heavier death and injury toll.

While those opinions differ, there is one thing local veterans and military experts agreed upon: They all hope at the White House and the United Nations efforts are successful in helping the country avoid war.

"I hope they can do it diplomatically because if we go in, it's going to be messy," said retired Army Lt. Col. Tim Fox, an aviator who now teaches Junior ROTC at Groves High School.


Copyright 2002 Savannah Morning News