The rule is, not to besiege walled cities if it can possibly be avoided.
ó Sun-Tzu, The Art of War
AMERICAíS WAR to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq will likely begin within the month. Barring a last-minute change of heart from President George Bush or a last-minute change of leadership in Iraq ("Welcome to Paris, Saddam"), American bombs will probably be falling on Baghdad by St. Patrickís Day ó at the latest.
And after that? There are scores of optimists (mainly in the Pentagon) who believe the Iraqi army will evaporate into the ether. According to this optimistic scenario, the American entry into Baghdad will resemble the Allied liberation of Paris in 1944. Most experts believe US forces will quickly take control of the countryside, an event, they figure, that will have a demoralizing effect on the rest of the Iraqi military. "When an army loses the countryside and finds itself reduced to just defending a couple key cities, they tend to just melt away," says retired Marine Corps general Bernard Trainor, a senior MSNBC military analyst.
But what if that doesnít happen? Baghdad is a city of almost five million people; itís roughly the size of Chicago. While most military experts donít think the ordinary citizenry will take up arms (if they even have them) in Husseinís defense, the dense urban environment could provide formidable cover for members of Iraqís Special units, including its Special Republican Guard and various intelligence services. The prospect of urban warfare is a key element of Husseinís defense strategy, and itís certainly something weíre going to hear a lot more about in the coming weeks. On Sunday, in a story headlined iraq strategy seen as delay and urban battle, the New York Times, for one, reported that Husseinís war plan includes a major urban component. Adding fuel to the fire is Osama bin Laden, who has urged Iraqis to take to the streets. "What the enemy fears most is the war of cities and streets, that war that the enemy expects tremendous, grave losses in," bin Laden pronounced in his taped message on February 11.
The US has good reason to fear city battles. The last time American soldiers fought in a city, in 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia, the US lost 18 servicemen, in a battle that saw some of their bodies dragged through the streets. Even though they were ultimately victorious, the difficulty American troops had in securing the Vietnamese city of Hue during the Tet Offensive in 1968 (remember the combat scenes in Stanley Kubrickís Full Metal Jacket?) helped the public lose confidence in the war in Vietnam. And US military planners are still mindful of the final European engagement of World War II, the Battle of Berlin, which resulted in 305,000 Russian casualties. In that bloodbath, German soldiers, some of them teenagers, forced the Russians to fight building-to-building.
As much as nobody relishes the prospect of fighting in Baghdad, American military planners believe this battle will be different. The Pentagon claims to have several tricks up its sleeve to avert a disastrous urban scenario. "Weíve prepared for that contingency, have trained for it, and will succeed in it," says Navy lieutenant Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
THE ARMY WAS initially reluctant to make too much of what happened in Somalia. But prompted, in part, by Mark Bowdenís study of the battle, Black Hawk Down, the Army brass eventually came to grips with the experience, which went as follows. In October 1993, members of the Rangers and Delta Force, who were in Somalia to provide military cover for a humanitarian mission, launched a raid to capture two henchmen for Somali strongman Mohammed Farrah Aidid. The Americans apprehended their targets, but became ensnared in a giant ambush in the narrow streets. The Somalis used shoulder-operated missiles to knock down two Black Hawk helicopters.
Looking back, military analysts attribute the debacle partly to the decision not to provide the troops with M1 Abrams tanks and armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles ó a political decision made by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, apparently in the hope of keeping the engagement under the publicís radar. While tanks alone canít win a battle in a city, they are an integral part of an invasion force. "Ideally, in urban combat you have a combined group of armored units and infantry," says one American veteran of the Mogadishu operation, who declined to give his name. "Tanks by themselves are very vulnerable to people on foot," who can attack the armored vehicles from the side, he says. "And foot soldiers by themselves are very vulnerable to people in vehicles."
The battle most frequently coupled with Mogadishu in the annals of modern urban warfare, however, did involve the use of tanks: the 1994 Russian routing in Grozny, Chechnya. In that battle, the Russians deployed more than 38,000 troops, including 230 tanks, against the Chechen rebels. The Russians confidently launched a three-pronged attack to retake the city, which had attempted to secede. (Chechnya, which had been an autonomous republic within Russia during the Soviet Union, declared its independence from Russia in 1991, and outright war began in 1994.) The Chechens ó aided, like the enemy forces in Somalia, by allies of Osama bin Laden ó repulsed the attack. The Chechens permitted the armored columns to penetrate deep into the dense areas of the city, where small groups of defenders could shelter themselves within buildings. Then they used shoulder-fired rockets to destroy the Russian tanks.
Learning from these experiences, military officials began crafting plans in the late 1990s for urban warfare, called "Military Operations on Urban Terrain" or MOUT, in Pentagon parlance. As part of the initiative, in 1996 the Army constructed a 29-building mock-up of a city ó named Shugart-Gordon, reportedly in honor of two soldiers killed in Mogadishu ó in which to train at Fort Polk, Louisiana. The Marine Corps has a similar facility outside Little Rock, Arkansas.
The American plan for city warfare combines a several equally important elements:
? getting good intelligence about the city
? sealing the city off
? using infantry, tanks, and helicopters to secure control of enemy areas
? minimizing civilian casualties.
For all the careful strategizing that has gone into these plans, however, the US hasnít yet had reason to implement them. But Israel has. After a string of unusually bloody terror attacks in March 2001, Israeli officials entered numerous Palestinian towns to locate terrorists and weapons factories. The bloodiest combat took place in Jenin, where the Palestinians lost more than 100 fighters, many of them resisting to the death, and the Israelis lost 23. While at the time considerable debate surrounded Israelís decision to use force, as well as the false allegation that Israeli troops massacred Palestinians, military planners took something else away from the battle: lessons on how to wage urban warfare.
Even prior to the attack, the Israelis knew they could get mired in an urban quagmire, and they sought to avoid it. For a whole month before the incursion, members of the Israeli Defense Forces trained exclusively in urban combat. To begin with, they studied the results of the American urban-war games in Louisiana and Arkansas; a handful even took part in them. Each day, the Israelis would immerse themselves in case studies of urban warfare ó their relatively unsuccessful experiences in Beirut in the early 1980s, their more successful fighting in Suez City in 1973. Officers were prepped in more detail. As the attack grew closer, Israeli officers brought in a military historian who had examined the Russian experience in Chechnya. The Russians, the Israelis learned, had failed to perform essential intelligence (they didnít know what was waiting for them); brought in inexperienced, untrained troops; and entered the city riding on armored personnel carriers. "The Chechen rebels waited with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], and it was like duck hunting," says one Israeli officer who commanded troops in the West Bank during the 2001 campaign. They also learned that when the Russians attempted to take the city again in 1996, they employed different tactics: the Russians spirited sniper squads into the city, they fought building-to-building, and they did a lot of reconnaissance.
Textbook learning was not enough. The Israeli forces quietly ran numerous exercises in urban combat, mixing infantry troops and armored troops. (Unlike US forces, Israelís soldiers practice fighting in real cities. They donít have the funds to build stage sets.) When the battle began, Israel had relied heavily on aerial photos and on-the-ground intelligence ó not just to figure out where their enemies were, but to communicate. If, for example, a commander wanted to tell a soldier to go to a specific location, he had to make sure that the soldier was heading in the right location. "Itís not enough to tell somebody to go to a house with a window," says the Israeli officer. "You need a common language. Aerial photos provide a common location." This was one way the American effort had failed in Mogadishu. One American who fought in the battle recalled a helicopter pilot giving directions to a vehicle racing to a helicopter-crash site, but it was the wrong crash site, a mistake that resulted in more fighting in enemy territory.
Another important element in Jenin was that the Israelis took "unconventional routes" from one location to another. Instead of traveling on the streets, for instance, the Israelis made their way through town by smashing through walls and buildings. Remembering what happened to the Russians in Grozny, the Israelis acted as though "the street is a killing zone."
Not everything in the Israeli experience in Jenin augurs well for an American attack on Baghdad. Again, as the battle raged, Israel came under fire from Palestinian groups and human-rights advocates for allegedly committing a massacre. Eventually, the Israelis were cleared, but only after days of negative stories in the press, particularly in the European media. Given the tremendous opposition to US efforts in Iraq from Europe and others around the world, the outcry that emerged after Jenin offers only a hint of the world fury likely to be unleashed on the US if troops have to fight building-to-building in Baghdad. This fear may have influenced the Pentagonís decision to allow 600 journalists ó including 100 from the foreign press ó to accompany combat troops and supply units.
And, that said, Israel avoided worse civilian casualties only by exercising extreme care in the house-to-house fighting. For example, Israeli forces relied heavily on Arabic-speaking soldiers to allay civiliansí fears and to move them out of buildings safely. "You have to get used to this notion that you are going to fight it very slow," says the Israeli officer. "It is the only way to do it successfully. There are many citizens there. You must do psychological warfare. We used very big speakers to convince the citizens. If you take out the citizens from a certain sector of the city, then the fighting becomes much easier ó and without all kinds of ethical problems."
Here, American forces could face a real problem. Israel has an unusually high number of Arabic speakers, both because all their fighting ó and much of their civilian life ó takes place in and among Palestinians and because demographically a large number of Sephardic Israelis come from Arabic-speaking families. But the US has a dearth of native-Arabic speakers. This problem has plagued the FBIís intelligence-gathering in the war on terrorism against Al Qaeda.
Itís possible that US troops will be able to rely on members of the Iraqi opposition, such as the Iraqi National Congress, to communicate with Baghdadís citizens. It certainly would make sense to use the opposition in this way. Yet that, too, poses practical difficulties. One of the most important things for military units is unit cohesion, something opposition members could unwittingly or even intentionally disrupt. Itís not yet clear how much training ordinary units ó aside from Special Operations Forces, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and so on ó have had with members of the opposition. If the Battle of Baghdad gets to the point where less-well-trained military units are fighting building-to-building, the lack of Arabic speakers or the lack of training with Arabic speakers will be a problem.
Thatís not all. In Jenin, Israel had to secure only an area of 600 square meters. Baghdad is a much larger, much more complex city ó and, some believe, rife in some neighborhoods with chemical or biological weapons. So, while all American units have at least some training in urban fighting, it is important that American troops ó infantry, armored units, and helicopters ó train together right now for urban fighting. "There is no conceptual problem in going to Baghdad and knowing what to do," says the Israeli officer. "Implementation is another issue. I donít know whether the troops have really prepared for this kind of warfare."
Still, the US is in a position to compensate for these weaknesses. Brigadier General (Retired) John Reppert, who is executive director for research at the Belfer Center at Harvardís Kennedy School of Government, says the US has advantages that Israel did not have in the West Bank campaign. "The other thing we have that is even superior to the Israelis is technological intelligence," says Reppert. "Helicopters and drones will be everywhere over that city. Anybody carrying weapons, anybody moving from building to building will be seen."
Just days away from war in Iraq, Americans are jittery and apprehensive about what lies ahead. But predictions that American troops will face the equivalent of what the Germans faced in Stalingrad or what the Russians faced in the Battle for Berlin are overblown. That said, practical problems will surely complicate a US armed invasion of Baghdad.
Diplomats who are following the prospects of war with Iraq know that the warís outcome will be determined by fear. When the Iraqis fear America more than they fear Hussein, the war will be over. If the Iraqis acknowledge the seriousness of the American effort, there may not be a Battle for Baghdad, which would be a welcome development. As Sun-Tzu stated more than two millennia ago: "The skillful leader subdues the enemyís troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field."
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com