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Iraq: Coalition Forces Drawn Into Urban Combat

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 25 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The war in Iraq entered its sixth day today and coalition forces in southern and central Iraq battled fierce sandstorms as well as continued pockets of intense resistance by loyalists to President Saddam Hussein.

Despite an initial desire not to get sucked into urban warfare, American and British forces are having to confront Iraqi paramilitary forces in populated areas, in order to clear the way for coalition units to move on towards Baghdad as well to prepare the ground for much-needed humanitarian supplies.

The plainclothes Fedayeen paramilitaries, who are under the control of Hussein's son, Uday, have spread themselves among the local populations of cities like Samawah, Nassariyah, and Basra -- Iraq's second-largest city. They are putting up fierce armed resistance, using guerilla, hit-and-run tactics that are complicating the coalition effort.

But Britain today declared Basra a military objective, saying the coalition's taking of the city would make it possible to deliver needed aid to the population. That decision reverses earlier plans to merely cut off Basra while coalition forces advanced toward Baghdad. But London also said the urgency of the humanitarian crisis in Basra has to be weighed against the coalition's concern over minimizing its own losses. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for urgent measures to be taken to restore electricity and water to the population of Basra.

Early, optimistic prognoses by some U.S. and British officials that coalition forces would be welcomed by the majority Shi'ite population of Basra have not yet been realized. However, there are unconfirmed reports tonight that a civilian rebellion may be underway -- but the scale was not immediately clear.

In another southern Iraqi city, Nassariyah, coalition forces crossed the Euphrates River today after a heavy battle. U.S. forces suffered new casualties in that confrontation. No figures on coalition losses were provided pending notification of relatives.

The U.S. command did note that some 500 Iraqis have been killed in the last two days by U.S. Army infantry tanks and mechanized units in fighting in southern Iraq.

President Hussein called on Iraq's tribes today to fight British and U.S. troops without waiting for further orders, in an address to clan chiefs read by an announcer on Iraqi satellite television. Anticipating the possibility that his command and control capabilities could soon be disrupted, the Iraqi leader said it was time for clan and tribe leaders to "assume responsibility" and order their men to join the battle.

Meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush, speaking in Washington today, said America has not lost sight of the importance of providing humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people: "This nation and our coalition partners are committed to making sure that the Iraqi citizens, who have suffered under a brutal tyrant, have got the food and medicine that is needed as soon as possible."

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel, stationed in northern Kuwait, reported today that a trickle of aid has begun to flow through the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr -- now in coalition hands.

"The first international humanitarian aid has begun trickling into southern Iraq from Kuwait," Recknagel said. "A Kuwaiti shipment of food and water with a total value of $10 million arrived this morning by sea to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. The port was declared secure late yesterday after sporadic fighting there the previous day. At the same time, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society today sent 10 truckloads of foodstuffs by road to Umm Qasr and Safwan, another Iraqi town just across the border in coalition hands. That followed a much smaller convoy carrying water, which was mobbed by eager Iraqis when it arrived in Safwan yesterday."

As U.S. and British forces draw nearer to Baghdad and with both sides acknowledging that the key to the success or failure of the coalition campaign lies in Iraq's capital city, what comes next is hard to anticipate.

Iraqi officials appearing on state television in recent days have dared coalition forces to march into Baghdad. Experts agree that the core of Hussein's strategy is to lure U.S. and British soldiers into urban combat where the coalition's massive technological advantage would be significantly reduced. If coalition forces took four days to seize Umm Qasr, a town of 4,000 people, how long would it take them to take Baghdad -- a city of 5 million people? A lot longer, experts believe -- and it would most certainly entail a heavy loss of civilian life -- just what the U.S. and British forces want to avoid.

Andrew Lambert, professor of war studies at King's College in London, tells RFE/RL that for this reason, it is important for coalition forces not to become lured into Hussein's trap --- and he does not believe they will.

"The great art is not to fall in with the enemy's strategy," Lambert said. "I suspect we will not see large-scale coalition forces attempting to enter Baghdad against significant opposition. I suspect that we'll see a number of other strategies being used. This is exactly what Saddam would want, this is exactly what the coalition will be most anxious to avoid. I suspect we'll see the coalition finding ways not to fall in with the enemy's approach."

Lambert does not want to venture any guess of what those methods will be, but he says the focus should and will likely remain on trying to destroy Hussein's regime or separate the Iraqi leader from his command and control network -- without necessarily seizing the city.

"This will be the surprise element of the campaign and at the moment I haven't got any idea what that would be. But it's quite clear that if the coalition puts its forces into Baghdad while the war is in the situation it's in now, it will have a real problem. I can't see any way that they'd be willing to undertake that. So, my presumption has to be that they do have a strategic plan for dealing with Baghdad. The object of the campaign is to remove the regime. The regime seems still to be located in Baghdad, so they're going to have to find a way of removing the regime from Baghdad, at which point the campaign is over."

Other experts think it may not be so easy. Wyn Bowen, also of King's College in London, thinks decapitating Hussein may not bring an automatic end to resistance by the thousands of Republican Guard soldiers and other regime loyalists, who have little to lose by fighting to the death.

"I think the key issue when you get to a place like Baghdad is that obviously, you're going to have more people on the ground -- special Republican Guards and others -- who have a 100 percent investment in the regime, in that their professional existence is to keep the regime in power," Bowen said. "So I think there are going to be fairly more people in Baghdad than elsewhere that actually have a vested interest in not giving up. So again, it's going to be very difficult and I don't know whether it's possible to take out key leadership targets -- and whether that would be enough. Because there will still be many people implicated in what the regime did."

Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said today he believes the coalition's "toughest days" remain ahead.