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Urban Warfare Adds New Dimension to Iraq War - 2003-04-01

Coalition forces have been detaining Iraqis dressed in civilian clothing that they believe to be enemy combatants. The problem of soldiers melting into the civilian population of Iraq’s cities makes for an ambiguous and dangerous battlefield.

Coalition forces entering Iraqi cities to root out an Iraqi army among buildings and civilians is a complex and dangerous task. But urban warfare is something the U.S. military has been training for, and learning from past experience. At training exercises in Quantico, Virginia, Col. Gary Anderson outlines some of the lessons of the past.

“We’ve seen it happen in Lebanon, I saw them do it to the Israelis, We’ve seen it happen to us in Mogadishu and Somalia and we saw it happen to the Russians in Chechnya. They’re not going to stand up against armored forces with air superiority, they know they’re going to lose if they do that in the open, so they will go into the city, in and amongst the civilian population, just like these people were doing, and use the women and children, the civilians, fight in and among them, knowing you’re put in a tough situation.”

The urban battlefield can be a confusing situation, as the U.S. painfully learned here in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 when U.S. troops were caught in a deadly urban firefight. If the enemy brings the fight to the cities and towns the enemy can be hard to identify.

It becomes difficult to know who the combatants are when they trade military uniform for civilian clothes and take cover in crowded areas. But the U.S. military hopes to apply the lessons from the past in Iraq now. The Marine Corp War fighting Lab has for several years been conducting training exercises to devise tactics to cope with the confusion of urban battle. Colonel Mark Thiffault.

“Humanitarian assistance or disaster relief these types of roles is what the marine corps will do in the future, these will be in urban areas. We need to learn how to be successful how to be safe and how to be effective in urban areas.”

In these drills the Marines are trying to simulate what they call the three block war where within a confined city area they may be involved in combat on one block, providing humanitarian assistance to innocent non-combatants on the next block and also conducting a police peacekeeping action in the same local area.

The U.S. military has also developed an array of electronics to help forces communicate and tie themselves together in what is called a ‘common tactical picture.’ The technology should help, but urban war is chaotic and unpredictable. Michael O’Hanlon is with the Brookings Institution.

“The kinds of technology the military is developing now for urban warfare will help, but incrementally. The bottom line is that urban warfare is just dangerous business. Because a person who really knows what they are doing can usually get in the first shot at you.”