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Saturday, March 29

Coalition forces prepare for coup de grace

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - The relative calm is deceiving.

Coalition forces in Iraq are now positioning to secure a noose around Baghdad in preparation for an assault expected to be the war’s coup de grace.

For the last several days, armored coalition units have been digging in 50 miles south of Baghdad for the first massive ground assault against Saddam’s most loyal troops.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division and its famous 7th Cavalry have taken control of the southern-most reaches of Baghdad. Special operations forces have secured broad swaths of territory to the west. And the 173rd Airborne Brigade is now securing key positions north of Baghdad - the oil fields and a vital airport that could be used to unload ground troops.

But the coalition troops' rapid movement to Baghdad has slowed, as preparations begin for the end.

"There’s no reason to rush this now," said retired Army Gen. Ralph Hanten. "You need all your vitals in place before you launch, and that’s what we’re doing."

The Army's 20,000-soldier 4th Infantry Division is expected to start moving north from Kuwait soon. Elements of the 2nd Armored Cavalry are positioned to deploy with light but heavily armed Humvees, possibly to patrol vulnerable supply lines in southern Iraq.

The Bush administration is clearly eager to turn the tide of sour public perception with a decisive victory over Saddam's 10,000-man Medina Division south of Baghdad in what is expected to be the most intense use of simultaneous air and ground power since the Vietnam War.

And coalition forces are apparently well prepared for that.

"We now have air supremacy over approximately 95 percent of Iraq," said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Our plans are on track."

The Medina Division has deployed south of Baghdad, where the vegetation of the Euphrates Valley will provide protective cover from high-flying coalition air support. That division distinguished itself as one of Iraq’s fiercest units in 1986, defending the southern port city of Basra from Iranian forces after they invaded the Al Faw peninsula.

Coalition forces may also have to take on the Republican Guard’s vaunted Nebuchadnezzar Division north of Baghdad and the Hammurabi Division to the west.

The hope is that the Medina Division can be smashed before it can retreat to Baghdad, where coalition forces potentially face a brutal urban battle that could drag on for weeks.

The southern assault also has morale implications.

The coalition war plan is suffering at the hands of critics who claim it’s not going as quickly or smoothly as some Bush administration hawks predicted.

Small but intense attacks by Iraqi militia forces in the south have confounded war planners and forced some British and American units to peel off and engage them. However, the ground campaign so far has covered more than 250 miles of often hostile Iraqi desert with few casualties.

Although Pentagon war planners and President Bush are portraying the campaign as successful, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledges that "we’re closer to the beginning than the end."