For Army's strategists, only certainty is change

`Best-laid plans work well until the 1st bullet is fired'

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

NEAR NAJAF, Iraq - The plan was clear when the sun came up yesterday.

Third Battalion would move east by foot and link up with other Army units along the Euphrates River at the town of Kufah by day's end.

By lunchtime, though, the plan had totally changed. Now, the battalion had orders to return west after the foot patrols and then head deep into Najaf, a city still sprinkled with fighters loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Commanders would have little time to sketch out a mission sending soldiers down a maze of narrow streets and, conceivably, throwing them into just the sort of risky urban warfare that the Pentagon has hoped to avoid.

Such back-of-the-envelope planning is common in war, and this one is no exception. The mere presence of the battalion and other elements of the 101st Airborne Division here testifies to that.

A few weeks ago, the battalion had orders to speed past Najaf and other southern Iraqi towns to a forward base outside Baghdad. That was before forces who support Hussein began sniping at coalition supply lines.

"The best-laid plans work well until the first bullet is fired," said Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Woodhams, top noncommissioned officer in the battalion.

Woodhams has 22 years in the Army; he fully expected the early battle plans to go out the window. "Officers like to plan, plan, plan," he says.

Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, his boss and commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 327th Infantry Regiment, likes to plan more than most. Palekas is a details man who upbraids subordinates if they cannot answer even obscure technical questions. After seeing him in action, it's not surprising to find he has a master's degree in operations research and systems analysis.

At the staging camp in Kuwait, Palekas ran his officers and other staff through a series of meetings at the operations tent several times a day. On one side of the 15-foot-by-30-foot tent, white plastic chairs were set up in rows facing an easel and maps. A bare fluorescent light bulb hung on a tent pole.

Staff members scoured blowup maps of Iraq. They read classified information on secure laptops. They planned, and planned some more.

Back then, when it seemed the U.S. military could race to the outskirts of Baghdad with little opposition, the southern towns merited little mention. There were threats along the route, but they did not seem considerable.

Even so, Palekas warned his lieutenants to be flexible with words that now seem prophetic: "There are a lot of things that could happen, planned or unplanned, as we tool up here."

His battalion's plan, dictated by military planners high above Palekas, has changed repeatedly. The route of the convoy changed half a dozen times.

Once in Iraq, the lack of predictabilty continued.

It was not until Sunday that Palekas learned his 700-man unit would be called upon to seize an airfield - the next day at dawn. There turned out to be no enemy presence, but no one knew that at the time.

The uncertainty factor is making it hard for some officers to do their jobs. Capt. Mark Johnson, battalion intelligence officer, has had little time to gather data lately. The Najaf mission is only the latest example. "I may spend hours on one part of the city and end up ignoring other parts," he said. "Then, when I'm thrown a new mission I don't get to get the intel."

It was a small thing, but when Palekas asked Johnson to pinpoint the Baath Party headquarters on the revised route, he did not know offhand.

Woodhams was uncomfortable with the new push into Najaf on such short notice. The battalion would not move until after dark and would not have helicopter support at that time. To him, that made the troops more susceptible to attack.

Palekas also struggled with the lack of time to think things through. "I can go at 50 percent of the answers, but I'm at about 25 percent right now," he said late yesterday afternoon.

There were signs of waning influence on the part of the pro-Hussein fedayeen. Looting was reported at the bombed Baath Party headquarters, something Palekas and his aides said would be unlikely if the fedayeen were strong. And late yesterday, military officials reported sporadic gunfire that they believed to be skirmishes between fedayeen and local Shiites.

Yet omens of danger for U.S. troops abounded. Just yesterday, helicopter pilots spotted a stash of rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons in the city. And during the battalion's march, soldiers killed at least two Iraqis with AK-47s and Apache helicopters destroyed what appeared to be two military command centers.

As wispy clouds turned the early evening sky over Najaf a brilliant orange, Palekas still did not know when or how his troops would go into the city.

The more he thought about it, the more it made sense to him to wait until first light. He recommended the delay to his boss, who blessed the idea.

It was now the new plan.

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