In Fallujah, a nightmare scenario of urban war

Heavy casualties foreseen in house-to-house combat

April 29, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As Marines prepare to head back into the rebellious Iraqi city of Fallujah, the stage is set for the most dreaded type of ground combat: urban warfare.

While military officers and civilian officials held out hope that negotiations could produce a peaceful resolution to the standoff, they stressed that force might well be necessary.

Fallujah could then pose the type of nightmare scenario that U.S. commanders expected to encounter in Baghdad last year. Some military officers and defense analysts feared that Saddam Hussein's soldiers would pull back into the city, set fire to oil-filled trenches and fire at U.S. troops from a warren of buildings and alleyways. But the capital fell with little resistance.

Marine Maj. Gen. John Sattler, operations director for the U.S. Central Command, which oversees coalition forces in Iraq, estimated that there are 1,500 insurgents in the city, a mix of foreign fighters, Baathist elements and criminals. Pentagon officials put the number higher, with 2,000 to 5,000 foreign fighters and an unknown number of local insurgents.

Those forces have spent the past two weeks of a shaky cease-fire shoring up fortifications in Fallujah, a city of 250,000 about 35 miles west of Baghdad. One neighborhood was estimated to have 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters, one official said.

Last summer, there were plans to cordon off Fallujah, seize weapons and issue identification cards, but the situation in the city "did not deteriorate" then and such measures were seen as unnecessary, said a military officer familiar with the plan.

Officials had hoped that Ramadi, another rebellious city in the so-called Sunni triangle, would serve as a model for dealing with Fallujah. In Ramadi, a combination of talks with local leaders, patrols by Iraqi security forces and infusions of U.S. money for rebuilding seemed to pacify the population, a senior officer said. Moreover, the 82nd Airborne Division, which turned over the province to the Marines in March, appeared to have a handle on the security situation.

`High-cost warfare'

Since then, violence has erupted in Fallujah, presenting Marines with the prospect of close and deadly combat that can produce scores of military and civilian casualties.

Though talks continue, some current and retired officers say the only way to gain control of Fallujah is through force.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer who writes frequently on military strategy, said that with the insurgents digging in, the only way to resolve the standoff and send a message of U.S. resolve is through military action.

"You've got to do the dirty work immediately," said Peters. "The Marines can do it. They can do it well."

Randy Gangle, a retired Marine colonel and director of the Center of Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine base in Quantico, Va., said urban warfare presents two distinct problems, complex terrain and the possibility of mass civilian casualties.

"You've got the problem of large numbers of civilians in the battle space," said Gangle. "Morally and ethically, you don't want to harm them."

Before the latest round of attacks, the director of Fallujah's largest hospital told the Associated Press that 600 people, mostly civilians, had been killed, though the health minister in the U.S.-appointed government, Khudayer Abbas, said the death toll was less than half that.

"It's high-cost warfare," said Russell Glenn, senior military and political analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. "Noncombatants have been the ones who have suffered in far greater numbers. They end up getting used wittingly or unwittingly as human shields."

A greater number of civilian casualties could create further political problems by feeding anti-coalition sentiment in Iraq.

Tactically, said Gangle, a force that is smaller and not as well armed can hold off a stronger attacker in an urban environment by using its knowledge of buildings and narrow streets. And overwhelming U.S. firepower can be blunted in a city, where pinpoint targeting with smaller munitions is usually needed instead of the bombs and missiles that could create a wide swath of destruction.

If the use of force is necessary to take back Fallujah, Sattler said, "We just want to make sure that fighting is as precise as it possibly can be in an urban environment and that we limit to the best of our capabilities any civilian casualties or collateral damage."

Surveillance systems, such as unmanned, picture-taking aircraft called drones, can be helpful inside a city but cannot provide commanders with the same quality of photographs that they can produce in the open countryside.

"They can't take pictures inside buildings," Gangle said.

`Three-block war'

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