Tragic losses part of equation

March 25, 2003|By Michael O'Hanlon

WASHINGTON - The last couple days of the war have been tough ones for the coalition.

In broad terms, the operation has continued to move along well, with ground forces closing to within 60 miles of Baghdad, southeastern Iraqi cities coming more and more within the grasp of allied troops and precision bombing continuing in Baghdad. But there were setbacks, particularly in regard to casualties and prisoners.

U.S. losses have increased substantially. The death toll in the operation of more than two dozen now exceeds those for the 1989 invasion of Panama and is approaching that of the 1993 operation in Somalia, which totaled 45. In addition, recent losses were primarily in firefights, not accidents, and some of the American bodies fell into Iraqi hands. On Sunday, a U.S. Patriot missile mistakenly shot down a British jet as well; British losses have been disproportionately high.

These losses are tragic, but they are also to be expected. In calculations I carried out before the war began, I estimated that coalition forces could plausibly lose anywhere from 100 to 5,000 troops in the course of conflict. I would, of course, be very happy to be proved wrong and see the war end without any further casualties to any side. But that seems an overly optimistic aspiration. It is more realistic to think that today's loss rates might continue into the future.

Indeed, they may well increase once coalition forces begin intensive fighting against Iraq's Special Republican Guard and Republican Guard forces, especially in a battle for Baghdad, should it come to that. Let's hope that, in such an event, Iraqi civilian casualties, which have been rather low so far, do not increase drastically, either.

The possibility of 5,000 coalition battle losses may be remote, but it would still not be surprising to see death tolls in the many hundreds. In fact, it would be somewhat surprising if losses wound up less than the 150 American troops killed in Desert Storm (or even the 400 who died from all causes throughout that operation's preparations and subsequent execution).

In strategic terms, however, the prisoner issue may be even more significant than the casualty issue. It now appears that about 10 coalition troops are in Iraqi hands. In fact, I am surprised that Saddam Hussein has not taken more prisoners - to use as hostages - from the ranks of the foreign media, "human shield" delegations and any other Westerners he could get his hands on.

Knowing the U.S. sensitivity to casualties, and remembering Jimmy Carter's experience with the U.S. hostages in Iran nearly 25 years ago, Mr. Hussein might have been expected to try to seize hundreds. But even 10 change the situation.

This is probably the first break Mr. Hussein was hoping for. He doubted the U.S. willingness to risk American lives in Desert Storm - and may still doubt it at some level - so may now hope he has a real trump card.

The combination of holding hostages, bracing his troops for urban warfare and being willing to use chemical weapons in battle probably makes the Iraqi tyrant, who apparently is still alive, think that he still has a good chance of surviving this war and holding onto power. The fact that he is wrong is not particularly relevant.

Unfortunately for Mr. Hussein, we will not allow our war plan to be stymied by concern for our prisoners of war. To do so would be to make ourselves vulnerable to hostage-taking in all aspects of our foreign policy. As much as we value human life in general, and American life in particular, we cannot allow Mr. Hussein to use these prisoners to demand a compromise solution that would keep him in Iraq.

As such, even if U.S. and British prisoners in Iraqi hands grow severalfold in the coming days, we need to continue to insist on Mr. Hussein's removal from power.

Moreover, at this point it is becoming hard to see how we could even allow him a safe refuge in exile, though perhaps there is still a little room for compromise if the war can be ended quickly that way. We also need to remind Iraqi officers and generals that anyone mistreating these prisoners will be held guilty of war crimes, just as President Bush did on Sunday.

But we cannot stop the invasion. As such, we must run some risk of the prisoners being harmed. Unfortunately, this is war, and however well it seems to be going on TV, it is still a quite ugly and dangerous business.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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