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U.S. Readying Its Bridges for River in Iraq

The Pentagon is pre-positioning equipment so troops could transit the Euphrates in any effort to topple Hussein.

November 03, 2002|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is outfitting Army engineering units with state-of-the-art river-crossing equipment capable of moving large numbers of troops and heavy materiel across the Euphrates quickly if the decision is made to attack Iraq, current and former defense officials say.

The portable bridges -- carried on truck beds in retractable sections that snap out into flat spans when they hit the water -- are being delivered to some of the dozen or so units at U.S. and European bases that might deploy to the Persian Gulf in the event of war.

Any U.S. military drive to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power probably would require not just airstrikes but also a full-scale ground attack.

Military officials say it would be impossible to control Iraq without crossing the broad Euphrates, which flows the length of the country and passes near Baghdad. The rapidly deployed bridges could play a crucial role, minimizing U.S. casualties by speeding large numbers of soldiers and heavy equipment across the river.

No matter how U.S. troops were to advance across Iraq, they would face the task of bridging and controlling the strategic waterway.

"At the end of the day, there will have to be equipment moved across the Euphrates, because if you want to control Iraq, you have to have forces on both sides of that river," said retired Lt. Gen. James Terry Scott, former commander of the Army's Special Operations Command. "And it will have to be over something that we can construct, because Iraq just doesn't have big enough existing bridges to move that kind of heavy equipment. And if it does, Saddam Hussein is going to make sure they get blown up."

Units that specialize in the muddy, difficult work of a major river crossing recently have stepped up training. In September, the Army's armor-heavy 1st Cavalry Division, based at Ft. Hood, Texas, conducted a huge exercise to practice the procedure. Military officials say the unit most likely would be the first deployed in any invasion of Iraq.

Other units are following suit, honing their skills at a task that was considered an important capability in Cold War days, when the military needed to be ready to cross the many rivers of Europe with ease.

Since the end of the Cold War, the focus of U.S. military operations has shifted from Europe to areas of the globe with fewer broad rivers, and the technique of fighting has shifted from the deployment of massive ground forces to heavy reliance on air power, making river crossing less important.

In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.S. forces had no need to cross the Euphrates because their goal was simply to expel Iraq from occupied Kuwait. This time, however, the stated aim is ousting Hussein from power and changing the Iraqi regime -- a task likely to require entry into Baghdad.

Military history is replete with tales of crucial and treacherous river operations, from Washington crossing the Delaware to the U.S. 3rd Army's rush over the Rhine in 1945, but American forces have not faced enemy fire while crossing a major river with a large force in five decades.

"At that point, Iraq has a half-mile-wide moat that the American Army is going to have to get across," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military research firm. "If there's one place that the Republican Guard might counterattack, that would be it."

Even if the U.S. military were to face no enemy at the banks of the Euphrates, it would have a complex logistical challenge on its hands.

The last time U.S. ground forces crossed a major river under conditions that might have led to combat was in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995.

That crossing of the Sava River was unopposed. But it was severely complicated by the worst flooding on the river in 70 years, at the height of the harsh Balkan winter. Few commanders involved had executed a major river operation, even in training, said retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash, who commanded U.S. ground forces in Bosnia at the time.

Even so, U.S. forces were so confident about the operation that they ferried troops and equipment across in helicopters and rafts long before the bridge was completed. After almost a week of attempts, Army engineering brigades built a 373-foot one-lane span in 72 hours. During the next few weeks, it was expanded to allow two-way traffic; 20,000 vehicles, many of them heavy fuel tankers and artillery pieces, crossed over it safely.

The last time U.S. forces faced an enemy while crossing a river of any size was during the 1950-53 Korean War, at the Han River. In World War II, the 3rd Army under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. used some of the techniques still employed today to cross the Rhine.

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