Thursday, April 3, 2003

Baghdad street fight worries experts

Scenes bring memories for combat veterans

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The battle for Baghdad could quickly turn into what the U.S. military leadership has wanted most to avoid - a street-by-street, building-by-building round of urban warfare that will be won by coalition forces, but not without cost.

That is the consensus of a small group of experienced military men from the Tristate who have been closely watching events unfold in Iraq - a retired Marine Corps brigadier general who has seen ground combat in three wars, a Marine major who has flown NATO-led air strikes over Iraq, and a major in the Ohio National Guard who 12 years ago commanded an armored company as it pushed through the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War.

A captain of an infantry tank company, a fighter pilot and a retired brigadier general. Todd Mayer, David Kaszei and Thurman Owens have unique perspectives on the war in Iraq. They've been there, done that and are among the Tristate's highest-ranking, most-qualified observers. The Enquirer will check in with them periodically as the war progresses.

Members of Enquirer's War Panel

The 3rd Infantry Division, a mechanized division that is spearheading the assault on the Iraqi Republican Guard troops ringing Baghdad, will prevail but the going will be hard, according to Maj. Todd Mayer of Anderson Township.

"The only things that worry me are street fighting, dirty weapons and fatigue," said Mayer, now a major and executive officer of the Ohio National Guard's 2-107th Cavalry.

Twelve years ago, Mayer was a captain, commanding an armored company of the 24th Infantry Division as it pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait and into the Iraqi desert. Mayer was wounded in the fighting and awarded a Purple Heart.

His unit was part of an armored column that has been folded into the 3rd Infantry Division for the present campaign in Iraq; one of the battalion commanders now pushing toward the outskirts of Baghdad was one of Mayer's fellow company commanders in Operation Desert Storm.

"Watching this causes a flood of memories," Mayer said of the live television coverage from embedded media traveling along with the 3rd Infantry Division. "I watch it, and I feel like I am there again."

When the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force have their confrontation with Iraq's Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad, it will be a battle of armor versus armor, with the objective being to decimate the Republican Guard's tank and armored vehicle force.

"In Desert Storm, we didn't tally enemy KIA (killed in action)," Mayer said. "We tallied destroyed enemy vehicles."

What the mechanized infantry depends on before taking on the Republican Guard directly, Mayer said, is "close air support'' - air attacks from land and carrier-based A-10 attack planes, F/A-18 Hornet fighters and Harrier jets.

Maj. David Kasseri, an active-duty Marine who works out of the Marine reserve center on Gilbert Avenue, said the "close air support" attacks on Republican Guard forces outside of Baghdad - taking out as many Iraqi armored vehicles as possible - will be the key to success for the troops on the ground.

"It amounts to softening up the opposition so the ground troops can move in," said Kasseri, a Clermont County resident who, in the 1990s, was the coordinator of close air support for Marine pilots on board the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Abraham Lincoln in campaigns over Iraq and Somalia, respectively.

The carrier-based Marine pilots, Kasseri said, have been taking the lead in the bombing campaign against the Republican Guard, working closely with ground commanders of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force that is a critical component of the assault on Baghdad.

"When you are a Marine pilot on that kind of mission, you are working for a 19-year-old kid on the ground," said Kasseri, a veteran of 2,400 hours in the F/A-18 Hornet. "You do what it takes to protect the young Marine on the ground."

The difficulty those Marines - along with the Army's mechanized division and the 101st Airborne Division - have faced from Saddam Hussein's forces and Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians reminds Owens of another tough war he helped fight over 30 years ago - Vietnam.

"There, you couldn't tell the South Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese, either in uniform or out of uniform," said retired Brig. Gen. Thurman Owens, who did three tours of duty in Vietnam from 1964 to 1971.

"It was hard to tell who the enemy was. And that's exactly what these young people are facing over there."

As in Vietnam, U.S. military appears to be having difficulty winning the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi civilian population.

"I don't like to criticize, because I support what we're doing over there 100 percent, but it seems to me we could be doing a better job winning the Iraqi people over," said Owens, a Boone County resident who retired from active duty in 1977. "The way you get to them is with food and water and we haven't been doing enough of that."

Like some other military leaders, Owens wonders whether the U.S. has committed a sufficient number of ground troops.

The 4th Infantry Division, which is on its way to the region, probably should have been there from the start.

"You've got Americans on the ground who are just dead tired," Owens said.

"It seems to me that people can take only so much dust and heat. They're going to need help."


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