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(photo credit: AP)
The battle of Wadi Saluki will be remembered as one of the fiercest fights of the second Lebanon War.
It was during the push to the Litani River - a few hours before the UN-brokered cease-fire went into effect - that a column of Merkava tanks from Brigade 401 began crossing Wadi Saluki in the face of fierce Hizbullah resistance.
Friday night, August 11, was a turning point in the war. The cease-fire resolution was approved by the UN Security Council, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz ordered the IDF to take control of Lebanon up to the Litani River, the area from which Hizbullah had fired most of its Katyusha rockets.
Crossing the Saluki meant the troops and tanks had to climb a steep hill while exposed to attack from mountains on every side. Understanding the risk to his tanks, Brig.-Gen. Guy Zur, commander of Division 162, deployed Nahal Brigade infantrymen on the high ground outside Andouriya and Farun, to provide cover for the armored column below.
The wadi was described later by senior officers from Division 162 as the "gateway to the Litani." Crossing it was deemed to be the first, essential step in a sweep west across southern Lebanon.
Commanded by Col. Moti Kidor, Brigade 401's Merkava tanks had been waiting for the push to the Litani for close to a week. Twice, they had received the word to go, but when they began rolling, they were immediately told to stop. But on August 11, just before 5 p.m., orders came that were not canceled and at 8 p.m. the tanks began to move.
The Hizbullah fighters were waiting. Kidor's men had been standing by for nearly a week and the enemy knew that the only way west ran through the Saluki. At least 100 guerrillas had deployed with their most advanced anti-tank missile - the Russian-made Cornet.
By early morning on August 13, 24 hours before the cease-fire was scheduled to go into effect, the soldiers succeeded in crossing the wadi and climbing the hill, at a heavy price. Twelve soldiers were killed - eight tankists and four infantrymen. Some 80 Hizbullah gunmen were killed.
Then orders came to halt the advance, leaving Kidor and his men wondering why they had been sent in the first place. Why were they ordered to cross the Saluki when it was clear that the cease-fire would be approved? What did these 12 soldiers die for?
The Battle of the Saluki was a microcosm of all the mistakes that were made during the war in Lebanon. Soldiers waited for a week, like sitting ducks, for orders that were twice received and twice canceled, reflecting a total lack of clarity and confidence within the General Staff, and perhaps the political echelon.
When the orders finally came, they made no sense; why push to the Litani hours before the UN was set to approve a cease-fire? What was the point of the brief, bloody operation, the soldiers asked, especially given the fact that two days after crossing the Saluki, they crossed it again - this time heading home?
Senior officers criticized the operation this week, saying it was launched at the last minute in an effort to influence public opinion in Israel and in Lebanon ahead of the UN Security Council vote on the cease-fire resolution. "The army wanted to show that it could conquer ground," one officer said. "They wanted to prove that they were capable of doing it."
There was also the way the tanks were employed. Twenty-four tanks participated in the operation, and 11 were hit by anti-tank missiles. When the tanks began moving through the wadi, the Hizbullah fighters began firing missile after missile at the vulnerable armor. The men in the tanks asked for help, but because of the large number of Nahal infantrymen present, the Northern Command refrained from calling for assistance from artillery or helicopter gunships.
The committees set up by Peretz and IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz will have to deal with these and other issues. Peretz has appointed former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak to head the investigation of the army's management of the war, and Halutz has asked former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Shomron to act as liaison between approximately 10 internal IDF investigatory committees.
"There were many professional mistakes made in the use of the tanks," one officer said. "The soldiers were not trained properly for this battle and the division lacked experience in using tanks and infantry units operating together and in this type of terrain."