U.S. soldiers preparing for battle yesterday were given pills to protect them in case of a nerve-gas attack, an Iraqi tactic that is feared and expected at some point as troops get closer to Baghdad.
As three armored brigades began reaching the outskirts of Karbala, a city of 400,000, the U.S. military was counting on its massive advantages in firepower, battlefield intelligence and air support to compensate for the relatively small size of the attacking force.
About 10,000 to 11,000 U.S. soldiers were taking on perhaps half that many Iraqi soldiers. A 2-1 advantage might seem like a big edge, but traditional military doctrine calls for attacking forces to outnumber dug-in defenders by 4-1 or 5-1.
The Third Infantry, equipped with 60-ton tanks and more lightly armored Bradley fighting vehicles, is a tight fit in the 25-mile-wide Karbala Gap.
Bounded on the west by the Razzaza Lake and on the east by the swampy flats of the Euphrates River, the Karbala Gap is a battlefield chosen by the Iraqis.
Pentagon officials said the Medina Division, which was badly bloodied by U.S. forces in the first Persian Gulf War, positioned itself right between the lake and river. To get to Baghdad, the Americans have to go through them.
That is OK with Gen. Tommy Franks and other coalition commanders. Their aim is to win not by outmaneuvering the Iraqis, as part of the much larger U.S. force did in Kuwait a decade ago, but by pounding them, first from the air and then on the ground.
After several days of heavy bombing by Air Force and Navy planes and Army Apache helicopters, the strength of the Medina Division, along with other Republican Guard outfits, had been severely "degraded," according to Pentagon officials.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday at the Pentagon that two divisions had seen their combat capability - in men and equipment - cut in half.
As many as a thousand Air Force, Navy and Marine flights a day have been hitting the three Republican Guard divisions that U.S. ground forces are expected to face in their drive to the Iraqi capital: the Medina Division to the southwest, the al-Nida Division to the south, and the Baghdad Division to the southeast.
But with the Iraqi tanks hiding in revetments, earthen walls, and in palm groves, there was no way for the U.S. military to know how much damage the air attacks had done to the Medina Division until the ground forces began attacking it.
Under the cover of bad weather and darkness, Hussein's regime has been reinforcing some Republican Guard divisions. One division was reported at 70 percent of its fighting capabilities one day last week, and at 75 percent the next day.
The Guard's Hammurabi Division was reportedly moving to reinforce the Medina Division, perhaps rebuilding its combat power to 60 percent of what it had been.
The six Republican Guard divisions - three armored, one mechanized and two infantry - began the war with 60,000 troops or more, according to most Western estimates.
The U.S. battle plan called for sending one of the Third Infantry's three combat brigades through the eastern reaches of Karbala, an Islamic holy city, and another through a 3-mile-wide neck of dry land between the city's western edges and the lake, which covers hundreds of square miles.
A third brigade was to follow through the gap and work its way around and behind the Medina Division to hold it in place until it is destroyed.
U.S. planners would have preferred to operate in the open terrain that enabled U.S. forces to blast apart whole Iraqi tank divisions in the 1991 Gulf War. But they had to hit the Guard where they found it.
The biggest U.S. concern was that the regime would use nontraditional weapons to gain an edge.
That worry has not been limited to chemical weapons. It also includes the possibility that Iraqi artillery might blow up the dam holding back the billions of gallons of water in the Razzaza Lake, thereby flooding the narrow Karbala Gap.
U.S. intelligence sources have indicated that U.S. special forces had seized the dam. But it was uncertain whether such light forces could defend it against a determined artillery barrage.
Contact reporter Tom Infield at 202-383-6050 or email@example.com.