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Iraq: War May Hinge On Final Battle In Baghdad's Streets

  • Jeffrey Donovan

U.S. troops and Iraqi Republican Guards are preparing to battle outside Baghdad in what U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says could be the fiercest fighting of the war. But assuming a U.S. victory, what comes after that? As RFE/RL reports, control of Baghdad could come down to a bloody urban battle.

Washington, 28 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Signs are mounting that the outcome of the Iraq war could come down to fighting in the streets of Baghdad.

Urban warfare was always the nightmare scenario for U.S. war planners, who hoped to avoid it by compelling Iraqi forces to surrender.

But Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad said yesterday that street fighting is precisely what Baghdad has been planning for. The defense minister told a news conference in Baghdad that Iraq has set up its main defenses inside the capital. "It will be no surprise that in five to 10 days, they will be able to encircle all our positions in Baghdad," he said. But he added: "They have to come into the city eventually.... God willing, Baghdad will be impregnable. We will fight to the end and everywhere."

At the moment, a major battle appears set to begin on the southern outskirts of Baghdad, pitting the U.S. forces against elite Iraqi Republican Guard divisions. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the looming battle about 65 to 80 kilometers from Baghdad could be what he calls the "toughest fighting" of the war. "It will require the coalition forces moving through some Republican Guard units and destroying them or capturing them before you'll see the crumbling of the regime," Rumsfeld said.

But it is also likely to require, analysts say, allied forces moving into Baghdad and taking the city itself by force. The question is how they will do that: whether it's possible to avoid a Stalingrad- or Grozny-like battle that levels the city and kills a high number of civilians whose security has so far been a key allied concern.

Stephen Bank is professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Army War College. Bank told RFE/RL that given U.S. military expertise and lessons from the past, it is possible to win an urban battle without leveling the city, as the Russians did to the Chechen capital. "If you're looking for history, let's say, of urban warfare of the last 60 years, there have been different models and tactics that are used. They're not all these kind of apocalyptic views of block-by-block slaughter, like in Grozny. What the Israelis did in Jenin last year was remarkably free of casualties," Bank said.

Bank said that with the United States' superior military hardware and training, Washington should be able to devise an innovative tactical plan, such as the one the Israelis had in the West Bank city of Jenin, to take Baghdad.

At that point, U.S. troops entering the capital could face thousands of Special Republican Guard forces, as well as paramilitary forces loyal to Saddam Hussein, all of them possibly well-hidden among Baghdad's civilian population of 5 million.

Analysts speculate that the United States could invade the city with the full force of its military, sending in heavy armor and troops from the 3rd Infantry Division, helicopter-borne troops from the Army's 101st Airborne Division, and special-operations forces.

Or they could take a more cautious, selective approach, according to Robert Hutchinson, a founder of, and spokesman for, the British publication "Jane's Defence Weekly" in London. "They want to minimize civilian casualties. They want to minimize the casualties to their own side and, of course, urban fighting tends to degrade the technology advantages which the coalition enjoys. You can't use tanks. You can't use artillery. You can't use precision-guided weapons at short range. They want to avoid that kind of house-to-house fighting as much as possible," Hutchinson said.

Edward Atkeson, a retired U.S. Army general, is an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. He told RFE/RL that Washington is taking what he calls a "tiered" approach to taking the Iraqi capital, first pummeling its government and military targets with air strikes.

Once past the Republican Guards outside Baghdad, Atkeson said, U.S. troops will seek to "selectively open up the city." He said the Iraqi capital is actually well-suited to be taken without too many civilian casualties because it has many wide boulevards and very few tall buildings or narrow streets.

Atkeson said mobile U.S. air troops can be sent in to take strategic, open areas where they could station large-scale automatic weapons and other armor. "If you have to open that up beyond that, you can readily drop leaflets and you fly over with announcements that everybody must leave certain areas of town by Thursday night or something because it's going to be destroyed. And after the people have moved out, you can destroy, flatten the areas that you may want to expand on into.," Atkeson said.

Still, there are already signs elsewhere in Iraq that fighting could be more complicated in Baghdad.

In Al-Zubayr, 20 kilometers south of the main southern city of Basra, Reuters reported yesterday that Iraqi militias (citizens fighting to reinforce regular army soldiers), mixing with the local population, were pinning down U.S. and British forces and trapping civilians in the cross fire. Residents of the town said as many as 15 civilians had already been killed.

Rumsfeld himself acknowledged yesterday that these militias are creating significant problems for coalition forces. "What they are is death squads, enforcers, and what they do is there's probably somewhere between 5,000 and 20,000 of them in the country. And they go into these cities and shoot people and threaten people and insist that they not surrender and not rise [up]," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld added that Washington, which had hoped to topple Hussein with a relatively light force, is now compelled to send in reinforcements of 1,000 to 3,000 troops a day and will continue to do so for some time.

Hutchinson of "Jane's Defence Weekly" said the extra manpower will be needed to take on the Republican Guards outside Baghdad. In turn, they could help avoid a bloody battle in Baghdad, he said, by inflicting so much damage on the Republican Guards that Iraqi troops in the city will be forced to come out and fight.

But he warned that in a war in which many assumptions have already been proved wrong, it would be hazardous to predict the shape of the final battle for Baghdad.