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Iraq: How Is The Campaign To Seize Baghdad Likely To Take Shape?

  • Jeremy Bransten

Now that coalition forces have seized Baghdad's international airport, where do the troops go from here, and how is the campaign to seize the Iraqi capital likely to take shape? RFE/RL gets the views of two defense analysts.

Prague, 4 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Military experts agree that the coalition's seizure of Baghdad's international airport, just 20 kilometers from the center of Iraq's capital, is a major prize in the two-week-old battle for control of the country.

Saddam International Airport's fall into U.S. hands has immediate symbolic significance and could soon be of military use to U.S. and British forces if the area around the facility can be made safe. That's according to Colonel Christopher Langton, head of defense analysis as the London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies. "It is definitely symbolic," he said. "However, it has strategic significance for the coming days, once the area is secure and supplies, including humanitarian supplies, can be flown into what is actually a well-constructed and workable airport."

The big question is: What happens next? How are coalition forces likely to deal with the task of capturing Baghdad, now that they are at the city's doorstep?

Robert Hutchinson of "Jane's Defence Weekly" said the coalition's main objective remains avoiding urban warfare and mass civilian casualties. For the immediate future, he believes, U.S. and British forces may seek to consolidate their positions around the city while leaving corridors open for civilians seeking to flee. "The coalition forces don't want to get sucked into bloody house-by-house, street-by-street fighting. There are 6 million people who live in Baghdad. So they are under strict instructions to minimize civilian casualties, and they know that this kind of warfare will also be costly in terms of their own casualties. We mustn't forget that we've still got four Republican Guard divisions that are positioned south of the city, and there are only 1,000 American troops taking part in the assault on the airport. This is very much an advance force that we're talking about here, so there's going to have to be considerable reinforcement and resupply," Hutchinson said.

A question mark hangs over exactly how many soldiers remain in the elite Republican Guard, which originally numbered six divisions of between 9,000 and 12,000 men apiece. Two divisions were reported to have been destroyed in battles with U.S. forces south of Baghdad. But the status of the other four divisions is unclear, as Langton explained. "The Medina Division at Karbala suffered. The Baghdad Division at al-Kut suffered. But the Nida Division, which was near al-Kut, we hear very little about. Nor do we hear much about elements of the Nebuchanezzar Division believed to be around Karbala, and they may well have been withdrawn into the city. But we simply don't know at this stage," Langton said.

Once more U.S. and British forces have established their positions around Baghdad, Hutchinson said the first incursions into the Iraqi capital are likely to be made by small units of special forces -- to test resistance. That could be followed by moves to seize outlying parts of the city, in a pattern being seen in the southern city of Basra. "The most likely scenario is not a siege, but it's probably taking key points within certain parts of the city, using special forces. They may even try to gain control of certain sections of the city, like Saddam City, to the east of the center of town, which has a very large Shi'ite majority. So they may set up a sort of interim government there to further isolate the regime stuck in the center," Hutchinson said.

Langton said that, although there may be a temptation to send units to seize strategic targets deep inside the city, such as ministries and communications points, a slower, methodical approach is advisable so that troops are not subject to ambushes. "They will have to go very carefully," he said. "If you seize one building, you could easily be isolated. You have to really advance into the city, suburb by suburb, street by street, block by block, and secure everything behind you to ensure that [Saddam's] Fedayeen and irregular forces cannot operate freely in your rear areas. And that's a lengthy procedure. So you're right. There is that danger, and that's why it's going to have to be a very painstaking operation," Langton said.

Yesterday, General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in theory, the Iraqi capital would not have to be under U.S. control in order for the United States to set up a new interim administration in Iraq and declare victory.

If Baghdad became isolated from the remainder of a coalition-administered Iraq, he said, the city would become "almost irrelevant." Both Langton and Hutchinson said this is a theoretical possibility, but they dispute the notion that Washington and London can claim to have achieved their objective without taking Baghdad.

"Frankly," Langton said, "I think if your objective is to remove the regime -- which it is -- and to destroy weapons of mass destruction -- which it is -- I don't see how you can claim either of those objectives unless you take the power center, and that is in Baghdad. And it may be that the weapons of mass destruction are in Baghdad. So I think you can claim that you control the country and that the regime may be irrelevant, therefore in a certain sort of semantic sense it has collapsed, or you've removed it. But the primary objective of [eliminating] weapons of mass destruction -- I don't know how you can do that until you've taken the power center."

Hutchinson concurred, saying this is the sort of thing that has happened historically. He said that most likely, "in terms of domestic public opinion in the U.S. -- after all these declarations of war aims, discovering weapons of mass destruction and overthrowing the regime -- the victory may be there on the ground, in terms of the remainder of Iraq, but until that regime is overthrown, the job won't be completed."

Baghdad today is without electricity, and there are reports of thousands of people fleeing neighborhoods adjacent to the airport for the city center.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military says it has renamed the airport Baghdad International Airport. General Vincent Brooks said at Central Command in Qatar that the new name signals a new "gateway to the future of Iraq."