Iraq sees urban warfare as deterrent to U.S. strike

Weak military's hope lies in raising political costs

August 26, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Saddam Hussein of Iraq will try to compensate for his armed forces' glaring weaknesses by raising the specter of urban warfare if the Bush administration moves to attack the Iraqi government, according to Pentagon officials and former U.S. government experts. In anticipation of an eventual American attack, Iraq has already started military preparations, they say.

Iraqi forces have been digging defensive positions for military equipment around Baghdad. The Iraqi military has also been moving air defense units around the country and dispersing army units in the field to make them less vulnerable to a surprise air attack.

During the Persian Gulf war of 1991, the Iraqi troops who captured Kuwait dug themselves into positions in the open desert. That made them vulnerable to allied airstrikes and the fast-paced attacks by the United States' better trained and more maneuverable ground forces.

But this time Saddam's goal is not so much to hold ground as to hold power. That means that Iraq can be expected to use the threat of urban warfare to try to deter the United States from attacking in the first place and to raise the political costs if Washington decides to press ahead with an invasion.

"Iraq has no hope of prevailing in a straight military fight, and after Desert Storm the Iraqis probably realize that," said Kenneth M. Pollack, the director of national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former CIA analyst of the Iraqi military.

"Their best and most likely strategy will be to try to create the political conditions that would lead the Bush administration to think twice about an attack," Pollack said. "And one way to do that is to make us believe that we are going to face a Mesopotamian Stalingrad."

Current and former American military officers expressed confidence that the United States would ultimately triumph but differed about how difficult a military campaign would be, particularly if U.S. forces had to fight in Iraq's cities.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who led the 24th Mechanized Division against Iraqi forces in the gulf war, was more sanguine about the course of an American military campaign against Iraq.

"My assessment is that if you put enough pressure on them, they will come apart and won't fight," McCaffrey said in an interview. "The notion that they will retreat into the built-up areas and turn them into a kind of Stalingrad is laughable."

"I don't think they can handle the synergy of American military power, the violence and speed," he said. "A war could entail a few thousand U.S. casualties. But my honest judgment is that if we are serious about this, it would take 90 days to build up our forces and 21 days for the campaign."

There is no question that the Iraqi military is a pale reflection of the Iraqi force that rushed into Kuwait in August 1990. Because of the U.N. embargo, the Iraqis have not been able to buy new weapons.

There is ample evidence that morale in the regular army is not high and that not all units can be relied on to fight.

The army's logistical network is also in tatters, analysts say, making it hard to quickly move troops around the country.

The Iraqi air force numbers about 300 combat aircraft, about half as many as it had during the gulf war, officials say. Iraqi pilots flew some of their best planes to Iran during the gulf war to protect them from airstrikes, and they have never been returned.

During the Persian Gulf war, Iraq's basic strategy was to produce a stalemate on the battlefield in the hope that the United States would negotiate over the future of Kuwait.

Iraq's current strategy is somewhat different, analysts say. Overmatched militarily, Iraq now regards its best option to be raising the political and military costs of an attack for the United States and any allies it may be able to attract, in the hope that Iraq's foes will lose their stomach for an invasion, analysts say.

Another option is urban warfare. Iraq's basic strategy, an American official said, is to disperse its forces, endure the American airstrikes and then move into urban centers.

"There are some indications that they are going to dig themselves in in population centers," said Walter P. Lang, who was the chief Defense Intelligence Agency analyst on the Middle East during the gulf war. "They have to do something to maximize the situation so that their local defenses can wear us down."

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