Today's Papers

To Hilla With It

Everybody leads with the U.S.’s continued early encounters with Iraq’s Republican Guards. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division took the town of Hindiya, about 50 miles south of Baghdad; the town is a key crossing point for the Euphrates. At the same time, a Marine division advanced to the town of Hilla, about 15 miles to the east.

While the U.S’s lead units have moved forward, there are still plenty of rear-action battles. The U.S.’s 101st Airborne Division is fighting for the town of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad—one GI was killed in the fight. The Washington Post says that the urban combat in Najaf is “proving problematic.” Iraqi irregulars have holed up in the Tomb of Ali, one of the Shiites’ holiest sites. “We don’t want a war of attrition, but we are in one,” said one officer. Part of the problem, says the Post, is that it would take “considerable forces” to fully occupy the town—forces that the U.S. can’t spare at the moment.

Also yesterday, at least seven civilians were killed when U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint fired on a van filled with women and children, apparently after the van ignored repeated warnings. 

The Post explains how the military, trying to adapt to Iraq’s tactics that blur the line between civilians and combatants, has informally tightened its rules of engagement. Any vehicle blocking traffic will be rolled over. And if an Iraqi has his hands in pockets and ignores a shouted command and then a warning shot, he “will be killed.”

The Post’s Keith Richburg, who has done a great job reporting around Basra, says that contrary to what some have suggested, residents in the city aren’t being forced to stay—many are leaving for day-trips and returning. Richburg also says that despite previous reports, British forces aren’t moving into Basra proper. “We don’t have any foothold there,” said one soldier. “We’re just sitting around waiting.”

The New York Times says inside that the Pentagon has insisted that it oversee the delivery of all aid to Iraq. The U.N. and international aid organizations aren’t into that—nor is Secretary of State Powell, who complained about it last week in a letter to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Meanwhile, the docks are still idle at Umm Qasr, a week after the key port was declared secure. Also, the Post mentions in passing that onedefense official said that because of the tighter rules of engagement, “the large-scale aid effort will have to wait.” (That’s follow-up-worthy.)

That’s bad news, says the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof, who’s roaming around southern Iraq: “Most Iraqis I talk to don’t seem passionately for or against the invasion; they just don’t want their babies to die of sickness from filthy water.”

The Post says inside that the State Department’s list of candidates to fill Cabinet positions in the planned military government for Iraq has been rejected by Rumsfeld. Citing “sources,” the WP says that Rumsfeld wants to ensure that the Pentagon controls “every aspect” of reconstructing the country and forming a new government.

The NYT, playing catch-up, fronts two pieces scrutinizing Rumsfeld’s preference for smaller, gizmo-laden invasion forces. The invasion of Iraq, says the NYT’s military analyst Michael Gordon, is partially a “giant experiment” to see whether a high-tech bite-sized force, as Rumsfeld has pushed for, is all you need nowadays. The piece, by the way, states: “The land war commanders in the field have been careful to stay out of the brewing debate.” (Gordon might want to check out the article tucked above his on the front page: “Rumsfeld wanted to fight this war on the cheap,” said one colonel in the field. Also on the suggested reading list, yesterday’s top Wall Street Journal story, “MILITARY OFFICERS WARN THEY HAVE TOO FEW TROOPS.”)

Back to the van shooting … Some of the papers simply accept the Pentagon’s tentative conclusion (pending an investigation) that GIs fired on the civilian-filled van only after the driver ignored a series of escalating warning shots. Take the NYT, which headlines, “FAILING TO HEED WARNING, 7 IRAQI WOMEN AND CHILDREN DIE.” But the Post’s William Branigin has a cloudier account, and in the process proves the value of embeds:

“Fire a warning shot,” ordered the checkpoint’s commander. Then, with increasing urgency, he told the platoon to shoot a 7.62mm machine-gun round into its radiator. “Stop [messing] around!” he yelled into the company radio network when he still saw no action being taken. Finally, he shouted at the top of his voice, “Stop him, Red 1, stop him!”

That order was immediately followed by the loud reports of 25mm cannon fire from one or more of the platoon’s Bradleys. About half a dozen shots were heard in all.”Cease fire!” he yelled over the radio. Then, as he peered into his binoculars from the intersection on Highway 9, he roared at the platoon leader, “You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!”