Cordoning off Baghdad part of `endgame'

Simple surge poses risks, so strategy could blend air steps, encircling city

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - With the Republican Guard being overpowered by American-led forces, the U.S. military is preparing for the likely siege of Baghdad - a final phase in the war that would include cordoning off the city and wiping out any resistance with commando raids and missile attacks by helicopters and drones.

"It's an age-old military tactic," one senior Pentagon official said. "This will be the endgame."

Saddam Hussein's regime has long prepared for the defense of the capital city of 5 million. The Iraqis would hope to lure coalition forces into an urban trap in which their aircraft and other high-powered weaponry would become far less effective against an entrenched foe spread in and around buildings.

"We certainly know the regime would like to do some defending of Baghdad; they would like to draw us in," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said yesterday at the U.S. Central Command in Qatar. "They may intend to do this by withdrawing the Republican Guard forces into the city, but the Americans will try to prevent that, in part by hitting them from the air."

Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated yesterday that coalition forces would not surge into the city - a move that officials said would leave U.S. troops vulnerable to grinding street-to-street battles with high casualties among coalition forces as well as civilians.

"We are not expecting to drive into Baghdad suddenly and seize it in a coup de main or anything like that," McChrystal said. "We are expecting, or at least planning for, a very difficult fight ahead."

But he declined to discuss this next phase of the war, saying only that the Republican Guard divisions south of the city are coming under withering attacks from coalition air and ground forces.

U.S. forces, some of them now within 20 miles of Baghdad, could begin within the next week or so to cut off all routes into the city, just as the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriyah were encircled by British and U.S. forces, officials said.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the commander of British forces in Iraq, told the British Broadcasting Corp. that operations in Basra could serve as a model for Baghdad. Burridge noted that troops have encircled Basra and mounted commando raids at night to kill any Iraqi irregular forces holed up there. Still, Basra is not yet secure, and British forces continue to root out fedayeen paramilitary forces.

"We need to proceed with great delicacy in Baghdad as we did in Basra because we don't want to cause any more damage to the place than is necessary and we certainly don't want to add to civilian casualties," Burridge said.

Burridge indicated that one key goal for the coalition is to use its sophisticated intelligence and surveillance capability, from drones and other aircraft and eavesdropping satellites, to pinpoint the location of enemy forces and civilians.

A British military source told London's Guardian newspaper that the British "don't want to turn Baghdad into Grozny," a reference to the Chechen city where Russian armored forces in the 1990s were picked apart by rebels as thousands of civilians were killed.

The expected siege of Baghdad would both make use of high-tech weaponry and remain mindful of humanitarian needs, the senior defense official said.

A Global Hawk surveillance drone would watch out for enemy movements. And Predator drones armed with 100-pound Hellfire missiles would target key leadership buildings and forces. This week, a Hellfire destroyed an Iraqi television radar dish yet managed to avoid damage to an adjacent apartment building, officials said.

U.S. special operations forces are expected to mount raids into the city, calling in air strikes and launching "snatch and grab" missions against Iraqi leaders, officials said. At the same time, coalition forces would try to bring in humanitarian aid to Iraqi civilians, through airfields seized in the area.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College who has written about urban warfare, has noted that by cordoning off a city, attacking forces can selectively seize and strike "decisive points" without having their troops become trapped inside.

In the case of Baghdad, this would include striking such targets as the barracks of the Special Republican Guard or communications facilities. Eventually, Scales has written, the attacker will "wear down and diminish the enemy's ability to sustain himself."

One Pentagon official said the military hopes that as Baghdad falls after being cordoned off and the Iraqi leadership is destroyed, Hussein's forces elsewhere in Iraq will surrender.

But Baghdad would likely be the scene of ferocious resistance, officials said, from the Special Republican Guard, a security force thought to number around 15,000, as well as from the fedayeen, the fanatical irregular forces who have been terrorizing southern Iraqi cities and striking at U.S. supply lines.

Some of the toughest fighting has come the closer the U.S. troops have approached the capital. As the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division, and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force close in, McChrystal said, the likelihood will rise that chemical or biological weapons will be unleashed by Republican Guard forces.

There could be a similar threat as American-led troops near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown.

"Clearly, as we threaten the core of the regime, which Baghdad and Tikrit represent, we believe that the likelihood of them using those weapons goes up," McChrystal said.

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