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The Canadian Press (CP) March 24, 2003

Pending battle of Baghdad will be the decisive conflict of war in Iraq

By Robert Russo

WASHINGTON (CP) _ The looming battle for the Iraqi capital of Baghdad will decide the war to oust President Saddam Hussein.

It could also be, as one U.S. colonel termed it, "as bloody as a knife fight in a telephone booth.''

The swiftness of the Anglo-American thrust toward the Iraqi capital has been slowed somewhat. But with U.S.-led forces less than 100 kilometres from Baghdad's southern suburbs, fighting there is expected to begin by week's end.

"This will plainly be a crucial moment,'' British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

Blair has said there is a "moral case'' for waging war to dislodge Saddam. Liberating Iraqis from the brutal regime makes this a just war, he has said.

Bloody street-to-street and house-to-house combat that results in thousands of casualties will negate the notion that this is a war of liberation even if it ends with a coalition victory.

"Once you start laying siege to a city like that you lose the moral high ground,'' said Patrick Garrett, a defence analyst at Globalsecurity.org.

A preview of what might occur in Baghdad may be playing out in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

Well-organized members of Iraqi army's 51st Division are dug in around residential neighbourhoods where they are slugging it out in tank and artillery battles with British forces.

The fighting has been from close quarters and ferocious. Civilian casualties are mounting.

"It's called Beirut fighting,'' one British infantryman said referring to the battles in the Lebanese capital during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1991.

A costly meat-grinder of a battle in the narrow warrens of old Baghdad can be avoided if Saddam sends his Republican Guard units south of the city to confront the advancing tanks and artillery of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.

A climactic fight outside of Baghdad's residential neighbourhoods is very much the Americans' preferred scenario.

Iraq's Medina Division of the Republican Guard may be girding for such a fight just south of Baghdad in Karbala. The Medina fighters are among Saddam's best. Their quick and decisive defeat could sap the Republican Guard of its morale and begin crumbling its cohesiveness.

A battle in the open desert suits the Americans because they control the skies and could pour munitions on exposed Iraqi tanks from helicopters and A-10 Warthog tank-killing aircraft.

"The Republican Guard would be destroyed in about 12 hours in open battle,'' said retired general Barry McCaffrey.

McCaffrey commanded a devastating tank division in the 1991 Gulf War. He is also known as something of an optimist.

Saddam could send some elements of the Republican Guard south of the city to meet advancing U.S. troops, but he's more likely to keep his best fighters inside Bagdad's limits.

That means an end-game of "clearing Baghdad street by street,'' retired British air marshal Sir Timothy Garden told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Pentagon planners and wagers of psychological warfare had hoped that more Iraqi commanders would have surrendered by now.

U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounded as if he was virtually pleading with Iraq's military leaders to lay down their guns or, better yet, turn them on Saddam.

"It's over,'' he said in an interview on CNN. "The regime will shortly be history.''

But the Iraqis appear neither shocked nor awed after five days of steady bombing.

"It's another night of bombing but that hasn't changed for the last three or four days,'' Sacha Trudeau, son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, told CTV News on Monday.

"What's interesting here, I think, is the reports from the south ... have been sinking into the city and have created some resolve in the people here,'' he said, speaking of the footage of American prisoners of war, captured pilots, and the shot down American helicopter.

"All of these have sort of stoked Iraqi pride and (built ) resolve to put up a fight.''

The fighting in Basra and Nasiriyah indicates that the Iraqi army will make a stand in Bagdad.

"That means the coalition will either have to encircle the city and starve out the population and hope they rebel,'' said Patrick Garrett. "That could take weeks.''

"Or, U.S. forces go into the city. That will take less time, but will be very costly.''

Exercises at a plywood city erected at Fort Polk, La., have not been encouraging. American troops, fighting in a scenario that saw no civilians involved, took casualties as high as 70 per cent.

The last time American forces engaged in urban warfare was in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed, along with hundreds if not thousands of Somalis.


Copyright 2003, Press News Limited