A Marine regimental commander was replaced Friday after being accused of showing too much caution in his drive on Baghdad. The move by Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, was highly unusual, coming just two weeks into the war and while the Marines were in the midst of a charge that sent them into unexpectedly fierce fighting.
Col. Joe W. Dowdy, who had been commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, was informed Friday that he would be reassigned to another position; he was immediately replaced by Col. John Toolan, the 1st Marine Division’s operations officer. Toolan hurried to the front and immediately took charge of a speeded-up drive to Baghdad. By this morning, the troops had begun to enter the capital.
The switch was made with no formal announcement, but word was sent down the chain of command, causing some grumbling among enlisted Marines who questioned the timing. Dowdy had been a popular commander, in part because he had taken pains to protect his troops, sometimes at the expense of speed.
“I’m afraid this could mean more casualties,” said one enlisted man, who asked that his name not be used.
The change was made one day after a fierce battle at the town of Al Kut, where Marines initially underestimated the resolve of Iraqi troops, which included parts of the Republican Guard’s Baghdad Division. The fight lasted much of the day, after which the Marines took the unusual step of driving all night with their headlights on -- usually a breach of security -- to make better time.
Marine officials said the decision to use headlights had come after Mattis emphasized the need for greater speed at a meeting of officers earlier in the day. He announced Dowdy’s reassignment the next morning.
Toolan is considered a hard-charging commander who had been intimately involved in the division’s battle plan and is close to Mattis. Toolan said his philosophy is to “close and engage,” and he immediately ordered more troops and more air power to the front. Early today, the division was speeding north on Highway 6, taking the unusual measure of using both sides of the divided highway.
The Marines have been moving toward Baghdad on a parallel but more easterly route than the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which reached the outskirts of Baghdad late Wednesday, well ahead of the Marines. The Marines have been slowed by fighting at several cities along the way, including Umm al Qasr, Nasiriyah and Al Kut.