WITH THE INITIATION of the large-scale air campaign, television is convinced that the war to liberate Iraq has begun in earnest. Until there are fireworks in Baghdad, CNN never quite knows what to do.

But in fact, the most important parts of Operation Iraqi Freedom continue to take place away from the cameras. First, the "target of opportunity" strike paralyzed the Iraqi leadership and may have killed a number of senior henchmen, if not Saddam Hussein or his sons. In the south of Iraq, British and American Marine forces are enjoying extraordinary success securing the oilfields around Basra. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in his afternoon briefing session, just 10 of about 1,000 wells in the area have been torched. In the western Iraqi desert, the "H-1" and "H-2" airfields--notorious Scud launching sites--have been seized, denying the Iraqis much opportunity to fire missiles at Israel. In the north, the town of Kirkuk is about to fall, and a Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan has been stalled. One by one, the nightmare scenarios surrounding the war are evaporating.

But it is the attack of the 3rd Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne up the Euphrates River valley that is perhaps the most significant harbinger of the victory to come. Reuters puts the division opposite the river town of Nasiriyah, roughly 120 miles along its axis of invasion. Nasiriyah is the first possible large-scale crossing site on the Euphrates, offering the best access along the main road--really, a six-lane superhighway built as the main supply line during the Iran-Iraq war to handle heavy transports and armored vehicles--to Baghdad. Two more good crossing points are less than a day's march northward, at Samawah and Najaf.

Ironically, the 3rd Infantry Division's march reprises and reverses the attack of the 24th Infantry Division in Operation Desert Storm, which made record time as the outside, flanking unit on the famous "Left Hook" maneuver. Indeed, the 3rd Infantry is the same unit--from Fort Stewart, Georgia, newly designated as a result of the downsizing of the U.S. Army over the past 10 years. In 1991, the division was commanded by Barry McCaffrey--who is now doing television commentary on the war.

The march is also following the Desert Storm contingency plan for surrounding Baghdad, crafted in early March of 1991 when it first became clear that Saddam might not meet the surrender terms imposed after the war. Under that plan, the 101st Airborne would establish a forward operating base just west of either Samawah or Najaf--and from Najaf would be in range to strike north of Baghdad to seal it off. Overall, the 1991 Baghdad plan called for placing a U.S. brigade on each of the five major routes leading to and from the city--and something like that is about to happen this time.

In its obsession with what's new and flashy about the current conflict, the media is giving short shrift to the immutable geography of the Iraqi battlefield--which, of course, has not changed since the Gulf War. As our troops race towards Baghdad, the question now is whether whatever is left of Saddam's regime will come out with their hands up or choose to die in their bunkers. And who would want to be the last man to die for Saddam Hussein?

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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