Knocking on Baghdad's Door

With the 3ID on the verge of entering Saddam's stronghold, the soldiers' talk turns to what dangers might be waiting inside the city

By Frederik Balfour

Only 24 hours before U.S. troops began their march on the Republican Guard forces massed on the outskirts of Baghdad, U.S. Army Private David Clifton was one frustrated soldier. "This war is nothing but a dog and pony show," fumed the anti-aircraft gunner for the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID), his fair skin burnt a fiery red by the desert sun. A seven-day pause about 120 miles outside the capital had left him sick and tired of his unit's slow-motion march through Iraq. "We need to roll like we did in Vietnam. We need to kick some ass," he said.

Clifton's history may be faulty, but his sentiments were genuine. Now, it looks like he has gotten his wish. By Apr. 2, the advance troops of the 3ID had pushed ahead through an area known as the Karbala Gap and made it to within 25 miles of the Baghdad airport. We in the 3ID's rear logistical arm, which I have been covering since before we left Kuwait 11 days ago, will be moving soon, too.


  I ask Captain Steven Guek, who runs the tactical operations center of the division's 703rd Battalion, how he feels about heading toward Baghdad at last. "We're knocking at their door," he declares. But Guek's demeanor turns serious when I ask about the next stage of the war. "It's kind of spooky. You don't know what you're going to walk into."

Spooky is right. Once the orders to move toward Baghdad came, the 3ID's fighting brigades raced more than 60 miles toward the capital in less than 24 hours. And they met hardly any resistance. The soldiers here are worried that Saddam Hussein may be trying to draw the 3ID and other coalition troops into Baghdad for a street-by-street fight with his toughest forces. "That's why we were able to slip right through the Karbala Gap," says Lieutenant Dennis Tebout, watching a multilaunch rocket stream north toward the front. "He wants to bring us into the city and turn this into a political thing."

For Tebout, the march to Baghdad carries its own problems. He's in charge of making sure food and water get to the front, but right now the lines are too far ahead to supply the troops efficiently. And when we get moving, we'll be taking a route that's cleared of Iraqi troops -- but not necessarily secure. So every time Tebout sees a rocket fired, he whoops. "Every one they fire makes my job easier because the logistics routes are safer," he explains.


  They had better be. The first supply convoy of 70 vehicles was due to begin the trek north just 24 hours after the ground troops began their advance. Lieutenant Colonel Steven Lyons, who is leading the convoy, says he aims to close the distance between his supply lines and the front. "The closer we stay to the combat teams, the better," he says. "But we want to stay out of artillery range if we can."

His convoy will be accompanied by armored Humvees and three anti-aircraft guns, but the fact that many vehicles lack radios is a security worry. "We don't have nearly enough," he says.

It's no wonder security is a big issue. Four soldiers from the 3ID were killed by a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint near our camp on Mar. 29. Late that night, their remains were brought back to our location. News of the deaths hit hard. The next night, as we lay under the stars watching Patriot missiles fire through the sky, a couple of soldiers next to me said they planned to shoot any suspicious-looking Iraqis on sight, rules be damned. As much as I wanted to dismiss their bellicose talk as bravado, I couldn't.


  My fears were confirmed the next day, when soldiers gunned down seven Iraqi women and children who failed to heed warnings and stop at a checkpoint. An investigation is under way, but most soldiers I've spoken to say they would have done the same thing. "If you start feeling sorry, then you start overlooking things," says Scott Mitchell, a 26-year-old private. "If civilians prohibit our mission, then they are a target."

Meanwhile, military police have started stripping Iraqis naked as they are taken as prisoners of war. Imposing such indignities on them will hardly help win hearts and minds.

Yet, as much as I abhor these measures, they're probably necessary to ensure safety. We in the supply convoys are far more vulnerable to ambush than soldiers in the fighting brigades, who roll in heavily armored tanks and Bradleys. The canvas doors and roof of the Humvee I travel in wouldn't save me from a knife, let alone a rocket-propelled grenade.

When I think about that, watching American-made missiles stream across the sky gives me a guilty sense of security. I wonder how that will change as we get closer to Baghdad.

Balfour, with the 3rd Infantry Division camped outside Baghdad, is normally a BusinessWeek reporter based in Hong Kong