Everybody leads with the allies’ advance toward Baghdad: Some units are now 50 miles away and are about to encounter one of Saddam’s better units, the Republican Guard Medina division. “This will be a crucial moment,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
An effort to soften up the Medina division with an attack by Apache helicopters early yesterday was essentially repulsed. While only one of the choppers was shot down—with its two-man crew taken prisoner—most of the other 30-odd choppers took heavy fire and retreated. “It was coming from all directions, I got shot front, back, left and right,” one pilot told the Washington Post, whichhas the most detailed account of the action. Another pilot explained that when they got back to base, “We all hugged each other.”
The Wall Street Journal says that the Republican Guard divisions have protected themselves from getting pummeled by air attacks by dispersing and heading into civilian areas.
The New York Times says Marines in Nasiriyah, scene of the heaviest casualties of the war, are now slugging it out in a “confused and chaotic urban shootout.” The Times says that Iraqi soldiers have been using civilians as shields, “pushing women and children into the streets.” Meanwhile, residents complained that U.S. helicopter attacks have killed “scores” of civilians, though the paper says it wasn’t able to confirm that. “It’s not pretty. It’s not surgical,” said one soldier. “You try to limit collateral damage, but they want to fight. Now it’s just smash-mouth football.”
Everybody mentions that British troops have encircled Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra, but don’t control the town itself. The city hasn’t had electricity or running water for days, and the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis. British and American forces had been hoping to take the city without a fight. (According to early-morning reports, the British, hoping to relieve their own siege, are now thinking about going in and trying to take over the city.)
The Post’s Keith Richburg, who is not embedded, continues to roam in southern Iraq and says that while U.S. officials claim that resistance has broken at the key port of Umm Qasr, he traveled there and ran into a “large group” of heavily armed Iraqi men in civilian clothes. “This is like Northern Ireland,” explained one British soldier.
The papers mention that the Pentagon acknowledged that one of its planes mistakenly bombed a bus filled with refugees near the Syrian border. At least five people were killed.
The papers again have various degrees of fretting about the U.S. strategy and whether the all-out-drive to Baghdad has left forces too stretched out and supply lines overexposed. As the WP mentions inside, some retired generals think the U.S. hasn’t sent in enough troops for the job. USA Today, meanwhile, notices that the commander of U.S. Army forces, in what might have been a bit of interservice sniping and CYA, or just an honest admission, said that the air campaign “hasn’t been as lethal as I’d like it to be.”
President Bush asked Congress for $63 billion for the war and occupation. The Post notes that the money is for a total of five months of fighting and occupation combined, which the paper concludes up high, suggests the administration envisions a “protracted” commitment. But the Post piece—headlined, “SPENDING REQUEST ENVISIONS LONG WAR”—is twisting things. It’s ignoring the fact that part of that timeframe includes the occupation. And if the occupation only lasted five months, would that be considered “protracted”?
The Journal mentions that the proposed spending package also includes various foreign aid goodies, including $1 billion in cash and $9 billion in loan guarantees to Israel. According to previous reports, there had been talk about linking that money to a freeze on settlements. Where does that stand now?
USAT is the latest paper to take a stab at playing Where-in-the-World-Is-Saddam-Hussein? According to a front-page piece, “U.S. intelligence and military sources” think that he was injured in last week’s kickoff attack and that he’s now being treated in some bunker. “We know he was wounded,” said an intel official “involved in tracking Saddam.” “We also believe he hasn’t left Baghdad.” The piece doesn’t leave much room for doubt, relying on White House officials who suggest that the most recent Saddam video was old and skipping any quotes from skeptical sources. That’s OK, because there’s plenty of skepticism elsewhere. The Post, which suggested last week that Saddam was around when the cruise missiles hit, goes inside with a report saying that U.S. spooks now believe that he’s alive. The piece doesn’t venture to guess whether he might have been injured. Meanwhile, the NYT’s John Burns strongly suggests that Saddam’s latest address was legit, and made in the last few days, suggesting that Saddam isn’t seriously injured.
USAT’s piece, citing intel sources, also mentions that Delta Force commandos have “tapped into Saddam’s underground phone lines.” That’s either a really bad leak, or a really nice bit of psy-warfare.