The top three U.S. military commanders in Iraq have met to coordinate the strategy for confronting Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard divisions near Baghdad.
U.S. Army Lieutenant General William Wallace and U.S. Marine Lieutenant General J.T. Conway met with the coordinating Lieutenant General for Central Command, David McKiernan, on Friday at a base in southern Iraq.
The meeting centered on how and when coalition forces should confront Saddam Hussein's six divisions of Republican Guards, which have formed a defensive ring around Baghdad. The divisions are Medina and Hammurabi in the west, Baghdad and Al-Nida in the east, and Adnan and Nebuchanezzar in the north.
The primary focus for Lieutenant General Wallace and the U.S. Army is the Medina Republican Guard Division. Several days ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair predicted the upcoming clash against the Medina division would be a "crucial moment" in the coalition war against Saddam Hussein and his government.
The operations officer for the U.S. Army's 5th Corps, Colonel Stephen Hicks, explained why it is critical for U.S. forces to defeat the Medina Republican Guards.
"The Medina is the one he puts the most training, the most dollars and the best equipment into," he said. "It is a tank division so it has a lot of tanks and he is likely to put that on the most likely avenue to Baghdad."
If the Medina Republican Guards are caught in the open desert, they are not likely to be a match for U.S. weapons. Their Soviet-era tanks have shorter range than American M-1 Abrams and artillery. And they are vulnerable to strikes by Apache helicopters and A-10 "Warthog" jets providing close air support to U.S. ground troops.
But those low-flying aircraft are also vulnerable to Iraqi anti-aircraft guns. Last Sunday, an Apache helicopter was shot down south of Baghdad and its two American pilots taken prisoner. The helicopter was on a mission to help destroy as many Medina Republican Guard tanks, artillery, and troops as possible before U.S. ground troops engaged them.
U.S. military commanders are also concerned that in some areas, the Medina Republican Guards may scatter into urban areas, endangering civilians and increasing the likelihood of sustaining American casualties during street-to-street fighting.
Most worrisome of all, commanders say, is that the Medina and other Republican Guard divisions may be preparing to defend their positions with chemical weapons. Iraq denies it has such weapons. But coalition forces believe the Republican Guards are well-equipped with such chemical agents as mustard gas and VX nerve gas.
The possibility of chemical attacks substantially raises the risk level for U.S. troops in the next phase of the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. But U.S. military commanders say no matter what it takes, they will achieve their objective and reach Baghdad.