Financial review March 26, 2003
Here comes The Battle of Baghdad
As U.S.-led coalition forces close in on Iraqi capital, what awaits them?
What was once a narrow, quiet Baghdad street is now a hellish canyon of smoke, gunfire and death. In alleys too narrow for U.S. tanks to maneuver, Iraqi gunmen in civilian clothes take refuge in residential buildings and attempt to pin down coalition troops with automatic-weapons fire.
Thousands are killed or wounded as the coalition troops slowly advance on central Baghdad. Blackhawk helicopters dispatched to rescue injured American forces come under heavy fire from rocket-propelled grenades.
This is what U.S. war planners so desperately wanted to avoid: The Battle of Baghdad.
Everything the United States has hurled at the Iraqi leadership was an attempt to prevent this moment. But within a few days - as early as tomorrow if the weather cooperates - U.S. and British infantry divisions will arrive at the outskirts of the Iraqi capital.
They may decide a bloody assault on Baghdad is the only way to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But urban warfare might claim the lives of hundreds of coalition troops and thousands of civilians, and increases the risk of a chemical assault.
Here are six key questions on the brink of what should be the war's decisive battle:
1. What will the Iraqis do to defend Baghdad?
Saddam has deliberately kept his best-trained and most loyal divisions - the elite Republican Guard - in the Baghdad area to save them for the critical battle ahead.
Experts say the Republican Guard could withdraw its tank units into the streets of Baghdad, but that U.S. air power and superior tanks would probably knock out the Iraqi tanks in a battle.
"The other option," said Randy Gangle, director of a U.S. Marine Corps-backed think tank, The Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities. "is what's known as 'asymmetrical warfare,' and my guess is they'll probably go that route."
That means troops would dress in civilian clothes, take up positions among the general population of Baghdad, and attempt to hold off the most powerful army the world has ever known with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Indeed, there are signs that this will happen. Witnesses report seeing heavily armed militiamen of Saddam's ruling Baath Party fanning out across Baghdad and manning sandbagged positions.
In modern wars from Chechnya to Mogadishu, irregular armies have been able to hold off much stronger forces by fighting on their own terms, in their own cities.
2. What will be the coalition's strategy for taking control of the city?
Once U.S. and British troops reach the urban fringe of Baghdad, their commanders will have some difficult decisions to make.
Instead of plowing ahead into the danger-laden streets, they may decide to blockade Baghdad for a while - prevent shipments of food and medicine in a final hope that Saddam's generals will turn against the doomed dictator.
"At some point you have to start asking some moral questions," said Pat Garrett, an analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "If what the U.S. is doing is for the liberation of the Iraqi people, then I'm not sure that starving them out is a practice you want to get into."
If the American-led force does enter the city of Baghdad, however, it will face even more moral quandaries. Its arsenal of Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision-guided JDAMs will be useless against an enemy that takes up positions in apartment houses, schools or mosques.
What's more, the helicopter and low-flying attack aircraft that are critical to a ground assault will face barrages of anti-aircraft fire, surface-to-air missiles, and grenade launchers.
Gangle said the coalition troops won't fight house-to-house - the type of warfare that claimed 647,000 lives in the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad - but will probably seize key positions and try to pick off Iraqi forces with irregularly timed and placed assaults.
The United States may attempt much of its fighting at night, because of its superior night-vision goggles.
3. How likely is it that Iraq will use chemical weapons during the battle for Baghdad?
Earlier this week, U.S. officials claimed that Iraq's leadership had drawn a "red line" around the map of Baghdad and that once U.S.-led forces had crossed it, the Republican Guard had been authorized to use chemical weapons.
That's if Iraq has any chemical weapons. As the war nears the one-week mark, advancing coalition forces have found no stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons anywhere in Iraq. And there have been no chemical attacks so far.
Most experts think that Saddam wouldn't use any chemical weapons except as a very last resort. That's because the Iraqi dictator has been waging a war for global public opinion, and a chemical attack would ruin his credibility. Even France said it would join the coalition if Iraq used deadly agents like mustard gas or VX nerve gas.
"Whoever is running the regime, if they go to that extreme it's the endgame," said Garrett of GlobalSecurity.org. Experts noted that U.S. troops may have already crossed the red line around Baghdad without an attack.
But Gangle said he was worried that Saddam would try to trap U.S. and British forces in a neighborhood of Baghdad called Saddam City - home to hundreds of thousands of anti-Saddam Shiite Muslims. A chemical attack there would cause a huge civilian death toll.
4. What will a battle for Baghdad cost in human lives, and how long is it likely to take?
Although techniques have been refined a lot since Stalingrad, urban warfare is still the most lethal type of combat known to man.
That point was driven home to Americans in 1993 when 19 American soldiers died in an urban skirmish in Mogadishu against a tribal warlord's ragtag forces.
Since the debacle in Somalia, U.S. military strategists have placed a greater emphasis on training soldiers to fight in an urban environment. The Marine Corps developed a program called "Project Metropolis" - with admittedly mixed results.
In its most recent urban exercises, the casualty rate for U.S. helicopter crews was between 50 and 100 percent, meaning that the majority of flights would result in death or injury.
Casualty rates for ground troops were not much better. Gangle, a retired Marine colonel, says that the initial U.S. casualty rate in a Baghdad battle would be around 30 percent. That means that a unit with 1,000 combat troops would have 300 deaths or injuries in the first day of battle.
He said the rate drops to 15 percent once the troops gain experience under fire. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a division commander in the first Iraq war, this week predicted 3,000 coalition casualties in a Baghdad battle.
But Iraqi civilian casualties could go much higher, as U.S. commanders faced agonizing decisions over whether to attack enemy positions in heavily populated areas.
No expert will even guess how long the Battle of Baghdad might take. "I think diplomacy should continue even after the fighting starts," said retired Col. Joseph Cerami, who teaches military strategy at Texas A&M University. He said a negotiated Iraqi surrender would save thousands of lives.
5. How much of the battle for Baghdad is the American public willing to stomach?
That depends on how much the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the nation's way of thinking about war and what it will accept in American loss of life.
In the 1993 Mogadishu incident, the loss of 19 servicemen and TV images of the corpse of an American dragged through the streets of the African city led both the public and Congress to clamor for bringing the troops home.
What's more, the low casualty rate in Afghanistan and other recent conflicts, and our speedy ground victory in the 1991 war against Iraq, with only 147 deaths, may have raised the public's expectations to unreasonably high levels.
Earlier this week, a CNN poll showed only six per cent of Americans believe casualties will be in the thousands. Most believe 100-300 U.S. soldiers will be killed, in the range of the 1991 war.
Americans may also recoil at large-scale death of Iraqi civilians. "The Iraqis are not going to be very careful," Garrett said. "The Iraqis are fighting tooth and nail to stay in power."
Saddam is betting that high casualties from urban warfare will call both Americans and the global community to seek a cease-fire, but President Bush believes that Americans will accept more sacrifice to prevent another terrorist attack.
6. What if we occupy all of Baghdad but have no idea where Saddam Hussein is? Then what?
Then we have a problem. The crux of the U.S. war plan is a "regime change" in Iraq, but that's a lot harder to pull off when you don't know where the head of the regime is.
Experts argue that a Saddam-on-the-loose would have no power if Iraqi forces lost their grip on Baghdad. However, a successful escape would also infuriate the American public after the failure to find Osama bin Laden since the 9/11 attacks.
"The loss of Baghdad will be a death blow to his regime and he will not be able to reconstitute his chain of command," said Ed Turzanski, a terrorism expert at La Salle University. He said Saddam's underlings might stage a coup and murder him if defeat seemed to be imminent.
On the other hand, Saddam is known to have an extensive network of underground bunkers and hiding places that could keep him well hidden from advancing coalition troops.
And there's been widespread speculation that the Iraqi dictator might escape north to his original hometown of Tikrit, where he also has bunkers as well as the overwhelming support of local residents - some of whom are relatives.
"My fear is that he somehow gets out of town and finds his way to Tikrit," Garrett said. "Then we have to go through this all over again."
Copyright © 2003, Financial review