For US troops, new duties, more danger
A new offensive in Baghdad will require house-to-house warfare – the most perilous kind.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many military officers and analysts predicted that US and coalition forces would have to fight their way into Baghdad and then conduct the kind of house-to-house urban warfare against Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam troops that is the most dangerous and the most deadly.Skip to next paragraph
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As it turns out, that didn't happen then. The invasion succeeded and Baghdad quickly fell, symbolized by the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue.
Now, nearly four years later, American GIs are about to launch a new offensive in Baghdad that is very likely to be that kind of urban warfare, on a scale not yet seen.
The new strategy, though it anticipates a leading role for Iraqi forces, raises difficult and in some ways profound questions for the US military and its capabilities in the 21st century. After five years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, does it have the resources and leadership to sustain an effort some experts say could take years, not months? And what's likely to be the long-range impact of this "surge" on the way the US military trains, equips, and plans for future conflicts?
Whether the plan outlined by President Bush will eventually succeed – and administration officials and supporters, as well as critics, say the odds are tough – the year ahead is likely to be "bloody and violent," as the commander in chief put it in his speech Wednesday night.
"Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue – and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties," Mr. Bush said.
Administration war planners acknowledge that they can't predict how long the ramped-up effort to secure Baghdad will take.
"It's viewed as a temporary surge, but I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a White House briefing Thursday.
"The US can sustain this escalation indefinitely, provided that there is an increase in end strength, longer and more frequent deployments, greater reliance on the guard and reserve, more money for recruitment and retention, and further lowering of standards for recruits," says John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. "All of this will cost time and money."
Much depends on the nature of the enemy response. A long and violent battle in Baghdad this week, which lasted 11 hours and occurred not far from the protected Green Zone, may be a sign of things to come. "It was the most intense combat I have ever seen," an Army Stryker Brigade officer, in Iraq on his third tour, told The Washington Post.
The essence of the new strategy is the embedding of US forces with Iraqi units to go after enemy enclaves in Baghdad and the surrounding area.
White House officials insist that US forces will be strictly under US command.
"There is not going to be the opportunity for Iraqis to be giving direct orders to the United States," a senior administration official said at the White House before the president's speech.
But embedding also commits US troops to what could be a more complicated and longer-term engagement in Iraq.