Iraq prepares for urban warfare

As Congress moves to approve a military strike, Iraq says the lesson of 1991 is: Stay out of the desert.

Forget Desert Storm. Drawing on lessons from the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi and US strategic planners are already preparing for a different kind of conflict. This time expect operation Urban Storm.

Iraqi officials are warning that Iraq will create a "new Vietnam" for American forces by forcing them to fight in cities. Senior Iraqi officials are telling Western visitors that "[we will] let our streets be our jungles; let our buildings be our swamps."

The aim is to draw US troops into urban warfare to "kill enough Americans to send them home," said one such visitor, who asked not to named. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz vowed "a fierce war during which the United States will suffer losses they have never sustained for decades."

During the 1991 war in the open desert, American tanks and aircraft "plinked" Iraqi armor at will, and US bulldozers trundled along the front line, burying surprised Iraqi troops in their trenches. This time, Baghdad wants to level the playing field by pulling US forces into city combat.

"Withdrawing Iraqi forces into the cities would make it much more difficult for Americans to fight," says Sean Boyne, an Iraq expert based in Ireland, who writes for Jane's Intelligence Review. "If US troops are drawn into cities, the risk of collateral damage is great."

Baghdad has already begun preparing the ground for this defense. Experts familiar with high-level Iraqi thinking say every urban base from the southern city of Basra to Baghdad has been garrisoned. Command and control is now decentralized; trusted officers have been put in charge of each urban area.

Food, fuel, and weapons are being stockpiled by the military, and Iraq's plan calls for a declaration of martial law to put troops on the streets "as soon as the bombing starts," according to a Western source. Ten new radio transmitters are said to be in operation to "keep communications fluid," the source said. In recent years, air-defense systems have been linked by Chinese-laid fiber-optic cable to ensure continuous communication, even during bombing.

But American planners are aware of Iraq's moves, and are devising ways to overcome Iraqi urban warfare plans. They make no secret that street fighting is a nightmare scenario for US troops, who have proven, from Vietnam to Somalia, that street battles are not America's strongest suit.

During a recent war game in California described by The Wall Street Journal, an attack force of 980 specially trained Marines were stymied, bloodied, but ultimately successful in attempts to dislodge 160 "enemy fighters" – but at a cost of about 100 casualties. The 6-to-1 US numerical advantage in this exercise could well be reversed during fighting in Iraq.

In Somalia in 1993, a US raid in downtown Mogadishu turned into a 15-hour firefight – the fiercest since Vietnam – that left 18 Americans dead and prompted a US withdrawal.

"This is what worries senior US generals," says Andrew Krepinevich, a retired US Army planner who heads the Center for Strategic and Budget Assessments in Washington. "But they believe that if you can move fast enough, if you can generate this snowball effect – this momentum for collapse – then these plans to turn cities into killing zones won't be able to be executed, because the regime will start to collapse."

US planners would aim to present Iraqi units with a choice: "If you can shock them enough in the beginning, the fear of the Americans may outweigh the fear of disobeying an order from a leader who is going to be ousted," Mr. Krepinevich says.

Iraqi forces may begin to unravel, in the same way that South Vietnamese units did, he says, when they realized, " 'We can fight hard but probably we are going to lose.' These [Iraqis] don't even need to think – they know they are going to lose and that Saddam is going to be out."

But Baghdad is calculating that the scale of that collateral damage will weaken US resolve. Gen. John Hoar, one of several retired four-star generals who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, cautioned about the possible risks of fighting for control of Baghdad, a capital city with 4.8 million people.

General Hoar noted that his "nightmare scenario" is a dozen Iraqi divisions lined up to defend Baghdad, reinforced with "several thousand" antiaircraft artillery pieces. "The result would be high casualties on both sides, as well as in the civilian community," Hoar said. US forces would win, but he questioned the cost in US lives, "and at what cost as the rest of the world watches while we win and have military rounds exploding in densely populated Iraqi neighborhoods?"

Analysts say any US invasion, if it comes, is likely to be preceded with an air campaign of several weeks that will target power centers of the Iraqi regime, such as key intelligence and security services, presidential palaces and elite military units. The bulk of the armed forces, made up largely of conscripts, and some Republican Guard units may be spared, in the hopes that they might rebel, or at least not fight – just as tens of thousands of Iraqi troops surrendered in 1991.

The question of Iraqi troop loyalty is a wild card for both sides, experts say, though there are some clues.

"Judging by the way he deploys his armed forces, it appears Saddam may not be very confident in the loyalty of ordinary conscripts, and of the Army," says Mr. Boyne.

Republican Guard units ringing Baghdad appear to be playing a "watchdog role over ordinary armed forces." Even those Guard forces are not allowed into central Baghdad – the sole purview of the smaller, but more trusted Special Republican Guard. Some argue that any indication that Republican Guard units were deploying in downtown Baghdad, or massing there, would signal the endgame for the regime.

Several Iraqi men who recently arrived in Jordan told Agence France-Presse news agency that Iraqi civil servants have had to promise not to leave their offices when bombing starts. "They handed out weapons to 'loyalists' and asked them to put their hands on a Koran or Bible and pledge: 'I swear that I will kill the enemy if I see him in the street, my backyard or home," an Iraqi identified only by the pseudonym, Imad, was quoted as saying.

Krepinevich says the morale of the Iraqi armed forces is questionable. "To me the scenario is not one of hardbitten Iraqi troops trying to defend Baghdad," says Krepinevich. "It's those guys trying to ditch their uniforms and find some civilian clothes."

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