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The Thunder Run

'Are You Kidding, Sir?': Fewer Than 1,000 Soldiers Were Ordered to Capture a City of 5 Million Iraqis. Theirs Is a Story That May Become Military Legend.

December 07, 2003|David Zucchino | David Zucchino is a Times national correspondent based in Philadelphia.

Precede

Nine hundred and seventy-five men invading a city of 5 million sounded audacious, or worse, to the U.S. troops assigned the mission outside Baghdad last April 6. Ten years earlier, in Mogadishu, outnumbered American soldiers had been trapped and killed by Somali street fighters. Now some U.S. commanders, convinced the odds were far better in Iraq, scrapped the original plan for taking Baghdad with a steady siege and instead ordered a single bold thrust into the city. The battle that followed became the climax of the war and rewrote American military doctrine on urban warfare.

Back home, Americans learned of the victory in sketchy reports that focused on the outcome--a column of armored vehicles had raced into the city and seized Saddam Hussein's palaces and ministries. What the public didn't know was how close the U.S. forces came to experiencing another Mogadishu. Military units were surrounded, waging desperate fights at three critical interchanges. If any of those fell, the Americans would have been cut off from critical supplies and ammunition.

Embedded journalists reported the battle's broad outlines in April, but a more detailed account has since emerged in interviews with more than 70 of the brigade's officers and men who described the fiercest battle of the war--and one they nearly lost.

Times staff writer David Zucchino, who was embedded with Task Force 4-64 of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), returned to the United States recently to report this story.

On the afternoon of April 4, Army Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz was summoned to a command tent pitched in a dusty field 11 miles south of Baghdad. His brigade commander, Col. David Perkins, looked up from a map and told Schwartz he had a mission for him.

"At first light tomorrow," Perkins said, "I want you to attack into Baghdad."

Schwartz felt disoriented. He had just spent several hours in a tank, leading his armored battalion on an operation that had destroyed dozens of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles 20 miles south. A hot shard of exploding tank had burned a hole in his shoulder.

"Are you kidding, sir?" Schwartz asked, as he waited for the other officers inside the tent to laugh.

There was silence.

"No," Perkins said. "I need you to do this."

Schwartz was stunned. No American troops had yet set foot inside the capital. The original U.S. battle plan called for airborne soldiers, not tanks, to take the city. The tankers had trained for desert warfare, not urban combat. But now Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), was ordering Schwartz's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles on a charge into the unknown.

Schwartz's "thunder run" into the city the next morning was a prelude to the fall of Baghdad. It triggered a grinding three-day battle, the bloodiest of the war--and dismissed any public perception of a one-sided slaughter of a passive enemy. Entire Iraqi army units threw down their weapons and fled, but thousands of Iraqi militiamen and Arab guerrillas fought from bunkers and rooftops with grenades, rockets and mortars.

The 2nd Brigade's ultimate seizure of Baghdad has few modern parallels. It was a calculated gamble that will be taught at military academies and training exercises for years to come. It changed the way the military thinks about fighting with tanks in a city. It brought the conflict in Iraq to a decisive climax and shortened the initial combat of the war, perhaps by several weeks.

But when Eric Schwartz got the mission that would prime the battlefield for the decisive strike on Baghdad, he had no idea what he had taken on.

Task Force 1-64, a battalion nicknamed Rogue, rumbled north on Highway 8 toward Baghdad. The column seemed to stretch to the shimmering horizon--30 Abrams tanks and 14 Bradleys, their squat tan forms bathed in pale yellow light. It was dawn on April 5, a bright, hot Saturday.

Schwartz's battalion had been ordered to sprint through 10 1/2 miles of uncharted territory. The column was to conduct "armored reconnaissance," to blow through enemy defenses, testing strengths and tactics. It was to slice through Baghdad's southwestern corner and link up at the airport with the division's 1st Brigade, which had seized the facility the day before.

In the lead tank was 1st Lt. Robert Ball, a slender, soft-spoken North Carolinian. Just 25, Ball had never been in combat until two weeks earlier. He was selected to lead the column not because he had a particularly refined sense of direction but because his tank had a plow. Commanders were expecting obstacles in the highway.

The battalion had been given only a few hours to prepare. Ball studied his military map, but it had no civilian markings--no exit numbers, no neighborhoods. He was worried about missing his exit to the airport at what fellow officers called the "spaghetti junction," a maze of twisting overpasses and offramps on Baghdad's western cusp.

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