"Knife fight in a phone booth"

Coalition forces can win the battle of Baghdad, but grisly images of death and destruction could cost them the war for Arab hearts and minds.

Published March 29, 2003 1:28AM (EST)

Want to know where the war with Iraq will end? Perhaps inside a Baghdad phone booth.

With the United States' much-hyped air bombardment failing to shock and awe enough members of Saddam Hussein's military or high command into surrender, many observers remain convinced that U.S.-led coalition forces will have to win their military victory in downtown Baghdad. And they'll have to do it by waging dangerous, restricted urban warfare, often compared to a knife fight inside a phone booth.

Analysts agree the U.S. and its allies would likely prevail in such a fight. But in the days and weeks ahead, military commanders will be pressed to find a difficult balance: While they must use enough force to win the battle, they must limit casualties among coalition troops and Iraqi civilians or risk losing the crucial war of public opinion. Images of grief and destruction have already inflamed war opponents at home and throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and that's come even as the allies have pulled their punches, militarily.

"It's an extraordinary balancing act," says Ronald Bee, a senior analyst at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation in San Diego. "We'll win. But if we have to fight in the city, it will be a mess in terms of casualties and public opinion ... Form is as important as substance. How this plays out will send all sorts of messages to our friends and political enemies."

Although the timing for a potentially epic city battle has slipped in recent days due to the fighting in the south of Iraq, all eyes remain on the Iraqi capital -- "Fortress Baghdad," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dubbed it. It's a fortress Saddam and his generals may be busy prepping for a guerrilla showdown.

Before the war, a brutal urban battle was described as the Pentagon's least favorite option. But in a campaign that has been short on momentum-changing victories, and with the planned surrender of Saddam's high command failing to materialize, that worst-case scenario is looking more and more like an inevitability.

"Increasingly there's no way around it," says Patrick Garrett, senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org. "Is it possible Saddam and his army will capitulate? Sure. Is it likely? No. If I were in his position, that's what I would do -- draw U.S. forces into the city."

Adding to the odds that troops will have to enter the capital is the fact President Bush stated an unusually precise goal for the war: physically removing Saddam Hussein from power. That means coalition forces may have no choice but to descend upon the city of 5 million and weed out Saddam's supporters neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, until they finally get their hands on the dictator.

"I don't mean to compare this to Vietnam," says Garrett. "But similar to that conflict, the United States has staked its international credibility on achieving those military goals, which are unconditional surrender. There is no Plan B."

For that reason, "the best-case scenario for Baghdad is that we don't have to fight there," says Timothy Hoyt, associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "The campaign was designed so that there would be many possibilities along the way for things to go right which would preclude us from having to go street-to-street in Baghdad. That's the last option."

The fear for the Pentagon is that street fighting -- the underdog's oasis -- could turn into a public relations debacle if pictures of dead Iraqi civilians slumped over on curbsides are beamed around the world to an international audience already uneasy with the U.S.-led war. The Pentagon got a taste of that possible blowback on Wednesday when news broke that two errant bombs had landed in a commercial Baghdad marketplace, killing 17 civilians and wounding dozens. Whether the missile was fired by coalition or Iraqi forces was unclear, but most of the world was instantly ready to blame the United States. And if it was a wayward coalition strike, the stark images of an enormous crater in the Baghdad street surrounded by demolished cars, smoldering buildings, dead bodies and wailing women will do little to bolster the U.S. claims of a war to free Iraq, or to win the hearts and minds of angry locals, who reportedly chanted: "Oh, Saddam, we sacrifice our souls and blood to you." They're the same Baghdad citizens the U.S. hopes will soon rise up against Saddam.

"I worry about Baghdad," says Judith Kipper, a Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. "I'm afraid Saddam has many things planned for us, that he'll revert to his early days as a guerrilla leader. He's homicidal, not suicidal. He'll try to kill as many American as possible." There's already speculation Saddam may have laid down a red line in the sand outside Baghdad, and once coalition forces cross it Iraq will launch a chemical or biological attack. Recent reports suggest he's following the lead of the rebels in Mogadishu who used small pickup trucks manned with machine guns to fight American soldiers, and those low-tech gunners may soon be seen racing around Baghdad. Saddam is also said to have deployed his militia throughout the city, commandeering schools, apartment buildings and shops, suggesting that he wants to place Baghdad citizens in the thick of the fight.

His goal? Creating bloody scenes that spark a worldwide uproar. "He wants to drag U.S. forces through populated sections of the city in hopes of getting the international community to step in and make it stop," says Garrett.

Compared to the wide-open desert, the city setting would certainly give Saddam's estimated 20,000 loyal troops embedded inside Baghdad more killing options by using buildings, rooftops and cellars as ambush platforms. Streets would turn into shooting galleries, homes and parks into battlegrounds, and intelligence would be harder to gather. The casualty rate for soldiers involved in urban battles is 30 percent, according to today's military calculus.

"The history of urban warfare in the 20th century indicates it's casualty-intensive," notes Stephen Cimbala, professor of political science at Penn State University and author of "The Politics of Warfare." "It's grunt-and-groan warfare."

The most famous and bloody urban battle in history was at Stalingrad, the epic, six-month World War II fight that claimed 1.5 million lives. Today, modern-day urban warfare scenarios vary from police-type actions, like skirmishes in Northern Ireland, to Israel's more aggressive military action in the West Bank, to bombing-only campaigns such as in Kosovo, or all-out military sieges such as the Russian's 1999 bloody bombardment of Grozny, which virtually leveled the Chechnya city.

U.S.-led forces have already gotten a taste of Iraq's brand of urban guerrilla warfare in southern cities such as Nasariyah and Basra, where soldiers have dressed as civilians, faked surrenders, and stashed guns and ammo inside hospitals, all clear violations of international law. That kind of deadly deception would likely be rampant inside the winding streets of Baghdad, where the U.S.'s extraordinary military advantage would be at least partially offset.

That's just one reason the Pentagon prefers to avoid city clashes. And that's why it may be hard for most Americans to conjure up modern-day images of winning urban battles. Perhaps Panama City, Panama, 1989. But even then, Gen. Manuel Noriega was able to elude tens of thousands of U.S. troops as he drove around Panama City for three days before finally surrendering in the parking lot of a Dairy Queen.

Meanwhile, the list of America's urban setbacks looms large: Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, during the clash depicted in the book and hit film "Black Hawk Down"; Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, when the Marine barracks were bombed; Hue, North Vietnam, in 1968, during the bloody Tet Offensive when the Viet Cong actually suffered a military loss but stunned the American public by boldly bringing the war to downtown.

Will Baghdad become another grisly backdrop? Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan says yes: "We have allowed them to cross the desert. We wish and beg that they come to Baghdad, so that we will teach a lesson to this evil administration and all who cooperate with her."

Of course that could just be more Iraqi bravado. Before the war, there were all sorts of worst-case scenarios -- Saddam launching scuds at Israel, blowing up dams along the Tigris River, firing chemical weapons, and signaling terrorists to strike America -- that have not yet come to pass. So there's a chance a U.S. strike into Baghdad could be easier than expected.

And coalition forces would still enjoy some significant military advantages. Though tanks cannot elevate their turret guns very high, the fact that Baghdad has few tall buildings will allow them to hit top stories. And thanks to assault rifles equipped with laser pointers that are visible only through night vision equipment, "the United States has unparalleled ability to fight during the night," says Garrett. By contrast, the Russian defenders in Stalingrad used night-fighting equipment to their advantage.

"There's a chance," says Kipper, "that it will be relatively easy, that there's nobody really in control in Baghdad and [coalition] troops are able to take over sections of the city one at a time and bring in food and medicine."

And if it's any consolation, Eric Larson, a senior policy analyst for RAND, a Pentagon-affiliated think tank, says support at home for the war would not take a major hit even if U.S. troops met stiff resistance inside Baghdad. "If Saddam's expecting American public support to fold in light of bloody street fighting, he's going to be disappointed," says Larson, who studies war and public opinion. He studied the polling data and found very high support for the war's objectives, the perceived threat the enemy poses, and the costs willing to be paid -- all keystones to maintaining public backing.

Larson concedes the current polling data are vague, because people are often asked about their support for the war in the event of "high" casualties, without given a real number. But this week, for instance, retired U.S. Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey suggested a prolonged battle in Baghdad could result in 2,000 to 3,000 dead U.S. soldiers. That's a traumatic casualty rate this country hasn't had since the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago.

At the same time, the American public is not accustomed to inflicting casualties -- especially among civilians. Traditionally, U.S. forces would contemplate unleashing a massive force of artillery and air power on the enemy's capital, targeting infrastructure sites like power plants as well as bridges, and in the process turning portions of the city into rubble. Moreover, destruction of infrastructure like electricity and water plants would mean far greater civilian casualties. During the first Gulf War, most of the Iraqi casualties resulted from damage to the infrastructure. But it's hard to argue you're the liberating the locals if you end up leaving portions of their capital in ruins. U.S. troops have tried in the past to destroy villages in order to save them, and failed miserably in the process to win the hearts and minds of the people on the ground. Will Iraq prove any different?

In this unique war, it's possible the U.S. and its coalition forces are actually more concerned than Saddam's regime about avoiding Iraqi civilian casualties. Recent news reports from southern Iraq indicated that hardcore troops, members of the Fedayeen Saddam, were using local women and children as human shields. All along, analysts have suggested Saddam would try to use the Iraqi dead to marshal international outrage against the war. Those same analysts concede there's no better place for him to pile up the dead - on both sides -- than in a protracted firefight in downtown Baghdad.

Not that a city firefight is guaranteed. If and when coalition forces break through Saddam's Republican Guard, camped approximately 50 miles outside of Baghdad, and charge on toward the capital, the Pentagon might just park its men on the outskirts and try to hit some more pressure points with heavy bombing in order to avoid a full-fledged invasion of the city.

"We want to apply enough pressure on the elite inside Baghdad so the regime implodes from the inside," explains Hoyt at the U.S. Naval War College. "In that pause, I'd like to unleash another leaflet campaign over Baghdad and tell civilians to leave."

U.S. forces might even wait for reinforcements from the Army's high-tech, tank-heavy 4th Infantry Division, which has been stalled by Turkey's vote that barred the U.S. from launching a northern offensive across its border with Iraq. With 16,000 4th Infantry Division troops just now shipping out from Fort Hood, Texas, it will take several weeks to get the high-tech division, complete with its hundreds of tanks and advanced digital communications, into the theater.

Without U.S. military assaults coming down from Turkey, Hoyt notes, the chances for a battle inside Baghdad have increased. That's because the Iraqi leadership is able to focus its attention on the south, while slowly pulling back its troops toward Baghdad. Hoyt suggests that simultaneous attacks from the north and south might have added to a sense of panic and defeat, and therefore have contributed to an Iraqi surrender.

One pending option, as Rumsfeld hinted Thursday, would be for coalition forces to encircle Baghdad and lay siege to it -- not let anyone in or out -- and simply wait for the regime to collapse. But again, how does punishing Baghdad locals, possibly denying them food and medicine, help "free" them? And with international concern already growing about a humanitarian crisis in Iraq, pictures of a U.S.-led siege would likely spark outcries.

That's why military planners are clinging to the hope that, faced with the show of overwhelming force and inevitable defeat, Saddam, or at least his top commanders, will give up, making an invasion or siege of Baghdad unnecessary.

"It's a military strategy of persuasion," says Cimbala at Penn State University. "You use precision bombing to send a message because you want to minimize civilian deaths and you don't want to destroy the city's infrastructure." The strategy also explains the mantra of inevitability coming from the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the allied command center in Doha, Qatar. The message to the regime, says Cimbala, is simple: "This is an exercise in futility. Get yourselves together and arrange a cease-fire."

The problem with that approach is it only works if the two sides are on the same page. "It assumes a cultural understanding," says Cimbala. Which means the U.S. may have miscalculated how the Iraqis would respond to the persuasion campaign, and to an outside invasion.

"I've always said when it comes to the Middle East, the United States is culturally and linguistically handicapped," says Kipper. She notes that's one reason the Pentagon shouldn't hold its breath waiting for paranoid Baghdad citizens to rise up against the regime, because they're not going to respond to the "Western, Judeo-Christian" notion of liberators coming in to set them free from tyranny. "They won't do a thing," she explains," until they're absolutely sure Saddam has been found or killed."

And so, as long as he's alive and at liberty, Saddam is likely to exercise powerful control over his people, even those who hate him. "I don't see Saddam Hussein capitulating," says Garrett. "He's come to the conclusion he's not going to make it out alive, and now he wants a larger chapter in the history book. He'll fight until the bitter end."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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