BRUSSELS (Reuters) – If there is no early surrender by President Saddam Hussein`s most loyal forces in a U.S.-led war against Iraq, the endgame could well be played out on the streets of Baghdad. For Washington, it`s a nightmare scenario.
Casualties — both military and civilian — would probably be very high if U.S. troops had to scour an unfamiliar, hostile and sprawling city of five million for diehard members of the Republican Guard hiding and sniping on their own turf.
“If the Americans were wise they would try to avoid it altogether because the casualties would be horrific,” said William Hopkinson of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
“There would be nothing to gain from this in terms of world headlines. The political tensions caused by chewing up a civilian population would be very bad for the United States, particularly if it went ahead without a U.N. resolution.”
Since the Vietnam War, conventional urban warfare has been considered so potentially costly that U.S. ground doctrine has advocated isolating and bypassing urban areas wherever possible.
Recapturing Seoul in 1950 and the battle for Hue in 1968 left the U.S. military with painful memories of block-by-block combat. But the bloody tangle in the Somali capital Mogadishu nearly 10 years ago will be uppermost in the minds of Pentagon planners as war with Iraq looms.
Dramatised in the film “Black Hawk Down”, the Mogadishu battle broke out when Somalis shot down U.S. helicopters on a mission to capture a local warlord and attacked U.S. troops sent to rescue their stranded comrades. Eighteen Americans died.
Urban jungles can neutralise the technological superiority that U.S. troops count on in a desert: communications systems are less reliable in built-up areas and lasers for targeting and determining ranges can be deflected off windows.
Attack helicopters are vulnerable and bombing from the air carries a high risk of civilian casualties, images of which can turn news network viewers back home firmly against a conflict.
“Americans…recognise urban warfare as the great equaliser, and we have continued to see that fact demonstrated the world over since World War Two,” said U.S. Lt. Gen. Edwin Smith in the Army Magazine.
In the Kuwaiti desert, near the tense border with Iraq, U.S. troops are training for close-quarters combat in a mock-up city of bullet-scarred shacks and sand streets littered with burnt out vehicles and coils of barbed wire.
Firing live rounds, the soldiers fight room to room, seeking out enemy soldiers represented by human-sized black targets. Brown targets represent civilians who must not be hit.
But no amount of training can really prepare a soldier for an unfamiliar and hostile city. As Hopkinson put it, the man with the Kalashnikov rifle who knows the back alleys and trapdoors stands a good chance against the anxious invader even if he is armed to the teeth.
Smith said urban areas quickly swallow up attacking forces, often isolating them from each other. They also expand the enemy`s avenues of approach, attack and defend options, its infiltration and escape routes and its access to logistical support and supplies.
Then there are the fleeing masses, non-combatants stumbling into the line of fire, uncertainty about who the combatants are, piles of rubble slowing advances and — in the case of Baghdad — the risk of attack by chemical or biological weapons.
Military experts say there is little doubt that Saddam, whose troops were sitting ducks for America`s air power in the 1991 Gulf War, would try to lure U.S. forces into urban areas with his 25,000-strong Special Republican Guard.
“Baghdad, its people and leadership, is determined to force the Mongols of our age to commit suicide at its gates,” the Iraqi president said in a speech, referring to the Mongol armies of Hulagu Khan that sacked the Iraqi capital in 1258.
Retired Army Col. William Taylor, former director of national security studies for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and now a military consultant, said he expected U.S. forces to stop short of Baghdad and possibly lay siege to it.
“We`ll surround Baghdad,” Taylor said. “We`ll have 24-hour surveillance. Anything that moves in or out of Baghdad goes with our permission. If they don`t have our permission, we`ll see it and we`ll kill it.”
But retired U.S. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded the 24th Infantry Division during the Gulf War, said the U.S. military should “absolutely not” try to avoid urban warfare.
“I think they`re going to be in the outskirts of Baghdad in three to five days, and they can take down the city in three days. It won`t be block by block, it won`t be room by room,” he said, suggesting that the Shi`ite majority of the Iraqi capital would not fight to the last for the Sunni-dominated leadership.
He anticipated “multiple defended points” with Iraqi tanks, artillery and chemical weapons because — while Saddam`s regular troops may not fight at all — as many as 15,000 members of the Special Republican Guard may fight to the death.
“Their officers will say, `I`m going to get strung up by these people…if I surrender`, and so I think we`re going to have to go in there and really bust them up,” McCaffrey said.
“And the violence, the speed, the night action, the armoured bulldozers, artillery firing into the lower floors at close range, I think will knock them completely out of their socks in three days. But I think there will be a fight going on for two or three days.”