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Military Planners Divided on How to Take Baghdad - 2003-03-31

Despite unexpected Iraqi resistance, President Bush says U.S. forces will continue their march to Baghdad. There the epic battle of the war will unfold. But how should it be waged? By a prompt attack or by laying siege to the city or by something in between?

As we have learned from fighting to date, taking Baghdad will be a difficult task, says Daryl Press, professor of government at Dartmouth College and a consultant to the U.S. Defense Department on military planning.

“I think it is very likely that we will not rush into Baghdad,” he says. “I expect U.S. forces to do everything they can do to destroy the heavy divisions of the Republican Guard, which are deployed outside of Baghdad. And once that is done, to essentially circle Baghdad and pause for a little bit.”

For how long? That is the question U.S. strategists are pondering. Too long a pause risks losing momentum and perhaps public support for the war. Moving into the city leads to the kind of costly urban warfare Americans are trying to avoid. Typically, one-third of an attacking force is lost in such an encounter, along with many civilian lives.

“I think we are going to do everything we can to avoid charging into Baghdad,” Professor Press says. “And so we will use the pause to try one more time to negotiate with Saddam's military leaders and Baath Party leaders to surrender. And finally, we will pause to give Iraqi civilians a chance to escape from Baghdad, if they possibly can. In the end, I would not be surprised if we get drawn into full-scale urban conflict in Baghdad.”

Mark Bowden is the author of the book Black Hawk Down, an account of the Americans trapped in urban fighting in Somalia in 1993. He says Baghdad could be much worse. He writes in The New York Times newspaper that "U.S. soldiers would be moving in a 360 degree battlefield with obstructed sight lines and impaired radio communications, trying to pick out targets from a civilian population determined to hide, supply and shield the enemy."

Francois Boe, an analyst at Global, says street fighting is a great equalizer. “It is an environment in which conventional military superiority enjoyed by the United States is diminished. The enemy can be hiding anywhere in any of the buildings and is very likely not to be wearing any uniform,” Mr. Boe says. “U.S. troops would be hard pressed to distinguish between civilians and enemy combatants. There is a great risk that the number of casualties will greatly expand as the war drags on and U.S. troops have to go house by house to clear and secure the areas.”

Hold on, says Ralph Peters, a former U.S. army intelligence officer and author of Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World. He writes in The New York Post newspaper that there will be limited combat in Baghdad but no house-by-house attack. There will be no Stalingrad on the Euphrates. Special forces can prowl the alleys looking for targets of opportunity which can be struck with precision. Meanwhile, food can be delivered to a besieged population.

Intense planning is needed, says Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel and now professor of international relations at Boston University. “I would expect that American and British forces would attempt to carefully identify, isolate and destroy different elements of the Republican Guard and other defending forces,” he says. “And in a sense do that piece by piece with the expectation that at some point further resistance would become next to impossible. Then things will collapse, and we will be able to occupy the city.”

Analysts say Baghdad offers some advantages for urban warfare: wider streets that are hard to obstruct, a lack of tall buildings to accommodate snipers. American and British forces will have sophisticated wall breaching explosives enabling them to pass from one building to the next without exposure on the streets.

Mike Durant, who piloted a helicopter downed in Somalia, says U.S. forces are now better prepared. He writes in USA Today newspaper that precision bombs will precede troop-carrying helicopters, which will be protected by attack helicopters and by tanks and armored vehicles on the ground. He says this kind of support was lacking in Somalia

But remember there are two sides to any battle, cautions Professor Bacevich. The outcome depends in part on the strategy and determination of the enemy.

Professor Press recalls the resistance of the Iraqi Republican Guard in the 1991 Gulf War.

“The U.S. Air Force just bombed the Republican Guard mercilessly and relentlessly for five weeks, and then when the ground war began and Saddam Hussein ordered that same Republican Guard to maneuver 30 kilometers to the west and fight the U.S. Army, they saluted and followed orders. And they fought tenaciously, even though they were destroyed,” he says.

After the war, says Mr. Press, what was left of the Republican Guard put down rebellions all over Iraq.

Given the risks, why go into Baghdad? Why not wait outside for the enemy eventually to collapse? Mr. Boe says coalition forces cannot wage war on the people they are trying to liberate.

“If you lay a siege on the city, the civilian population becomes the victim of this,” he says. “I am sure the people in charge of the regime can hold on as long as they want, while the population will suffer the most. The administration's policy has been this is a war of liberation. It is not a war against the people of Iraq. It is not a war against the citizens of Baghdad.”

Richard Kohn, professor of military history at the University of North Carolina, agrees that siege warfare mainly punishes the innocent and spares the guilty.

“As long as that siege goes on, it creates a greater and greater humanitarian crisis for the population that is caught inside the city,” Mr. Kohn says. “Perhaps it can go on for a certain period of time, but as is the case for the last decade and more, it is the Iraqi people who would suffer, and Saddam Hussein inside his bunkers and palaces would do just fine with whatever food and other resources he has stockpiled for such an eventuality.”

In war there are no easy choices, says Professor Kohn, and one outcome may be only somewhat less bad than another.

“Our fervent hope was that we could remove Saddam Hussein without war. That did not work. Our next most fervent hope was that the war could be very short and very lacking in destruction,” he says. “In the end, it comes down to both sides having choices. The coalition of the United States, Britain, and others is determined to remove this regime and they will.”

Coalition forces will pause before Baghdad and await a response, and pray for it, says Professor Kohn. If it is not forthcoming, then Americans may unleash the full force of modern warfare.

An Iraqi surrender would be preferable to that. “They have the possibility of escaping what is certain to happen if they resist,” he says. “They have already put up a good fight. I think the Iraqi people and the Iraqi population have already resisted to the point of honor and national pride. It is now time to cease the resistance so they can get out from under this barbarous regime that seized their country over 30 years ago and held them in terror and tyranny.”

The best future for Iraq will come with the least bloodshed.