In Baghdad, a deadly risk of urban war

House-to-house fighting may rival Vietnam's worst

March 24, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - American soldiers approaching the outskirts of Baghdad are poised for one of the most dangerous and unpredictable operations of modern combat - a mission they are trained to perform but one that could easily lead to long days of fighting, indiscriminate destruction and casualties on a scale so far avoided in the high-tech age.

Instead of storming Basra and An Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, coalition soldiers were cordoning off those cities. But if Iraq's elite Republican Guard troops are entrenched in Baghdad as suspected - and if they choose to fight - American soldiers could soon wade into some of their heaviest and costliest urban combat since the Vietnam War's Tet Offensive in 1968.

The prospect of a battle over "Fortress Baghdad" is so ominous that some Pentagon officials say U.S. troops will take great strides to avoid it, perhaps by surrounding and isolating the city and waiting for it to "implode" under the strain. Superior technology and equipment give coalition forces an edge no matter the terrain, analysts say.

`The toughest battle'

But that edge is never thinner than when troops enter the cramped and mysterious confines of a large city such as the Iraqi capital.

"It's the toughest battle - certain to bring more casualties than we've seen," said Randy Gangle, a retired Marine Corps colonel who now heads a military think tank in Quantico, Va.

"If I were an opponent of the United States' military, then urban warfare is precisely the kind of battle I would want to wage. Nothing diminishes our superiority more than fighting inside a city."

Iraqi officials seem to agree. Speaking at a televised news conference in Baghdad yesterday, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan suggested that President Saddam Hussein was hoping to lure coalition forces into an urban battle.

"We have allowed them to cross the desert," Ramadan said. "We wish and beg that they come to Baghdad, so that we will teach a lesson to this evil administration and all who cooperate with her."

The Pentagon has anticipated the need to fight in the streets of Baghdad since the war with Iraq was first contemplated. Few war planners expected Hussein's best troops to repeat the mistake of 1991, when they were pummeled by American B-52 bombers as they gathered in the desert.

But even as the U.S. military recognized the possibility of urban warfare, many of its actions up to now have been designed to rattle Iraqi troops into submission so that a battle in the streets could be avoided. The Pentagon's published urban warfare doctrine calls for attempting airstrikes or special operations before resorting to urban combat, because of the "terrible price" that city fighting has exacted in the past.

American forces have kept to the fringes of Basra and An Nasiriyah as they move northward, engaging in some urban battles but avoiding the kind of large-scale fight that might be needed to take the capital. At a briefing yesterday in Qatar, U.S. Lt. Gen. John Abizaid said Iraqi fighters are mingled with the population in those cities, making it difficult - and undesirable - to engage them in combat.

"We're not looking to go in and fight house to house in all these areas," Abizaid said. While acknowledging the risks, he called the coalition forces closing in on Baghdad "powerful and unstoppable."

If the troops approaching Baghdad are ordered into the city to sweep out Iraqi soldiers, they will enter the battle with little aerial intelligence and few clear ideas about where the enemy forces are and how well they are armed, analysts say. The aircraft and satellites that are so valuable in open terrain aren't so effective when enemy troops and weapons are hidden indoors or underground.

Artillery and airstrikes are less valuable in cities because spotters often cannot see their targets, and buildings shield enemy positions from bombs and shells. Likewise, the shuddering force of tank and mortar fire can shatter nearby buildings, endangering the troops around them. Soldiers who fire heavy weapons can suffer concussions and internal bleeding when operating from confined spaces such as a basement or a tight alleyway.

Urban warfare also forces soldiers to be perpetually alert and to make snap decisions. In contrast to the aerial bombardment of recent days, a typical urban firefight takes place at a range of under 100 yards, Pentagon planners say - often under 25.

"Urban warfare undoubtedly neutralizes some of our forces' superiority - not just in technology, but also our superiority in training, and in command and control, and in discipline," said Russell Glenn, a senior analyst who specializes in urban warfare at the RAND Corp., a research firm that advises the government on defense matters.

"Those superiorities still exist, and they give us the upper hand," Glenn said. "But you certainly could suffer far more numbers of [American] casualties than we've seen in ... recent years."

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