Urban Warfare in Baghdad Promises Peril
WASHINGTON (AP) _ War strategists liken urban combat to knife fights in a phone booth. Allied forces are getting a taste of it in small Iraqi cities, trying to avoid it in a larger one and face an almost certain round of it in the biggest prize of all, Baghdad.
Unless Iraq capitulates before the fall of the capital, the city’s rooftops, modern boulevards, sprawling neighborhoods and narrow, twisty side streets will test coalition armies inching closer by the hour.
Military theory holds that an army unit loses almost one-third of its people taking a city _ a price the United States hasn’t paid for generations and hopes to avoid with new tactics and training, an excess of caution and a dose of luck.
Already, allied forces have engaged ``rag tags in flip-flops,″ as British Sgt. Nigel Barton described poorly trained but dangerously unpredictable urban irregulars who might extend a hand of friendship one minute and shoot the next.
U.S. and British troops have struggled for four days to secure an early conquest, the strategic port town of Umm Qasr where the Iraqi resistance has refused to melt from the streets.
Farther up the highway, allies closed in quickly on the outskirts of Basra, a city of 1.3 million, taking the airfield on the outskirts and a bridge. But there the assault paused, turning into a shooting match that persists.
Allies hope the enemy will give up before they have to send troops into the city. ``We’re not going to get drawn in unless we absolutely have to,″ said British Col. Chris Vernon.
Basra is but a microcosm of Baghdad, city of 5 million, home to Saddam Hussein’s toughest defenders and the key to victory.
Allies face a multitude of hazards if they have to mix it up inside ``Fortress Baghdad,″ as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put it. Military analysts say the worst case _ actual door-to-door combat, with civilians always in the way _ might be avoidable, but incursions of some sort into hostile urban areas are likely.
Beyond the obvious risk to troops moving through unfamiliar neighborhoods, the prospect of high civilian casualties gives commanders pause. After the 17-hour urban gun battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, 18 U.S. servicemen and more than 1,000 Somalis lay dead _ and not all the Somalis were combatants.
Separating combatants and innocents, already a deadly challenge for forces operating in southern Iraq, would be all the harder in Baghdad.
On the approach to the capital, the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division has run into al-Quds militiamen who used a commercial area to stage guerrilla attacks, officials said. When U.S. tanks went after them, they quickly found themselves in a residential neighborhood, with women and children coming out of their houses to gawk at the Americans.
``The al-Quds are all along this area, dressed like civilians and driving civilian vehicles and they come out at night,″ 4th Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp said Monday. ``The al-Quds are madmen, taking over people’s houses and making them get out.″
For all that, some U.S. strategists say Fortress Baghdad can be taken, and not necessarily at tremendous cost.
``I don’t think it’s going to be a Stalingrad,″ said retired Marine Col. Bob Work, referring to the Russian city where 1 million died in a crucial defeat for German invaders in World War II.
He said the positioning of Saddam’s toughest divisions outside the city raises hope they can be decimated by air attack rather than take up urban warrens in great numbers.
He is clinging to that hope.
``In the city, everything is a line-of-sight fight,″ Work said. ``You peek your head around the corner and you can see down one block. Enemies can pop out above you, below you. They can come from the sewers.
``They can shoot down from you from windows. They can outflank you by going down alleyways on the other side of the building.″
Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, said allies would have to divide the city into manageable chunks, isolating the resistance.
``It will be a pain, it will be difficult, it will be urban,″ Goure said. ``But it will work.″
John Pike, defense analyst at Globalsecurity.org, predicted a three-pronged urban strategy _ bombing leadership targets, sending in the tanks and seizing airwaves to urge surrender.
``Those three things simultaneously will hopefully convince people that Iraq is under new management,″ Pike said. ``And if that doesn’t work, then there’s going to be a problem.″
Some of America’s costliest fights have been in urban combat _ several thousand lost in Seoul during the Korean War, hundreds in Hue City in Vietnam. Retired Marine Col. Randy Gangle, former adviser to the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, said it is common for 30 percent of an invading force to be killed or wounded in the early going, compared with 10 percent in open combat.
``We will not willy-nilly use our firepower in the cities the way we would in the open,″ he said. ``And we’ve trained for just that type of thing.″
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Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory: http://www.mcwl.quantico.usmc.mil/