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Analysis: Military Options For An Attack On Iraq

Weekend Edition Sunday: October 6, 2002

Urban Warfare


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Yesterday in his weekly radio address, President George W. Bush said, `War with Iraq may be unavoidable if Saddam Hussein does not disarm.' The Pentagon has reportedly given the president several military options for an attack. Iraqi officials have warned that if that happens, they won't hesitate to draw the fighting into Baghdad. As NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, US war planners don't relish that prospect, even though in the last decade, American forces have trained for urban combat.


In late August, former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman wrote in the Times of London that a new war on Saddam Hussein would be, quote, "a cakewalk." Some Pentagon planners shuddered at the statement. They know there are few cakewalks in combat, especially in the case of Iraq, if Saddam Hussein draws US forces into a close-quarter fight for Baghdad. The city of five million has a mix of broad boulevards and labyrinthian old streets, and apartment windows and rooftops there can become sniper nests or rocket posts to fire on troops or aircraft. Rounds can come from basements, sewers and parked cars. Doors might be booby-trapped. Alleys and subways can become escape routes for enemy forces. In cities, electric lines can snarl helicopter rotors, and small arms fire can take out copter pilots.

Colonel JIM RABIN(ph) (Army Aviation Specialist): Anybody that goes into that type of environment and tells you that it's going to be pretty and tells you that there won't be casualties hasn't done that kind of operation before.

WESTERVELT: Colonel Jim Rabin is an Army aviation specialist who saw action in Mogadishu, Somalia, in the early '90s, one of the few times in the last 50 years where US forces faced serious urban combat. Eighteen US soldiers were killed in that city in 1993 in fierce street fighting, prompting a speedy US withdrawal from Somalia. Army ground troops rely on close air support, and Rabin says the huge tactical air advantages the US has--speed, precision, agility--are greatly reduced when flying in a city.

Col. RABIN: Navigation becomes more difficult because you don't have the terrain features that you're accustomed to seeing. Weather becomes an issue because you're flying aircraft in between buildings and at low levels, and you have winds that are produced in between buildings. It becomes an urban canyon. Canyon flying is difficult.

WESTERVELT: Colonel Rabin says most military commanders in wartime would rather encircle or go around a big city than get ensnarled in street fighting. Still, Rabin believes the US can win a big urban fight without massive American casualties. Retired General Joseph Hoare(ph) isn't so sure. General Hoare was Marine Corps chief of staff for operations during the first US war against Iraq. In city fighting, General Hoare argues troop exhaustion and casualties, combined with big communication and resupply challenges, can quickly make units combat-ineffective. And the city terrain, he believes, all but levels the technological playing field.

General JOSEPH HOARE (Retired): Contact frequently comes at 20 meters, 30 meters across the street, a hundred meters. The fact that you're shooting at and killing people at very short distance negates all of this wonderful technology that we've developed to fight people at long distances.

WESTERVELT: The Pentagon sent a team to Israel to talk with Israeli Defense Forces or IDF on the tactics and techniques used during recent attacks on Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Rather than risk sniper fire while moving in the street, for example, the IDF often move house to house by blowing up or blowing through adjacent apartment walls. US infantry officer Colonel Jim Harris teaches military strategy at the National War College. He says the US has learned some lessons from the IDF.

Colonel JIM HARRIS (National War College): Understanding that, hey, you do run into booby traps throughout the town as you go in there. I mean, the IDF will set up on several situations. The sewers--they pretty much not decided to fight the sewers but block them, destroy them, so that the enemy can't use them also. The combined arms operation of engineers and also armor being employed there with the IDF, very successful. Blowing in a wall to enter a building vs. trying to go through doors or windows that might be covered by fire is the way you do it.

WESTERVELT: Any attack on Baghdad would require destruction of critical Iraqi communication centers, but analysts say not so many that Iraqi soldiers couldn't get the word from commanders to surrender. And Colonel Harris says an urban assault takes careful planning to selectively shut down but not eradicate key utilities.

Col. HARRIS: The water, the electricity--you know, you don't want that destroyed because, you know, there is a population there that you want to keep on your side or have supported for, and you need that support also. You need that water maybe, and you need that electrical supply.

WESTERVELT: Few current US commanders or soldiers have big city combat experience. Besides Mogadishu, the battle for Hue City during the North Vietnamese's Tet offensive is one of the few recent examples. In one of the bitterest fights of the Vietnam War, three US Marine battalions fought hard for days to retake Hue, but not before 150 Marines lost their lives. Mindful of the ancient temples, palaces and the civilian population in Hue, the US initially withheld heavy air power. General Hoare, who received the Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam, remembers being in Washington and seeing the cables coming through on US casualties in the fighting against North Vietnamese forces.

Gen. HOARE: Rather than withdrawing, when the Marines came back to force them out, they chose to fight block by block, city by city; extraordinary heroism, and it was intense. This, of course, was the event, in my judgment, that broke the will of the American people and, indeed, the American government to continue the fight.

WESTERVELT: The question now in any potential conflict with Iraq is whether Baghdad residents will turn on Saddam Hussein, as many US military planners hope, or whether they'll aid Iraqi soldiers in any block-by-block fight. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.

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Spring Lineup
From March 18 to June 21, 2002, Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen will serve as an interim host on All Things Considered, while its co-host Noah Adams is on leave to write a book. Until Hansen returns to Weekend Edition Sunday in July, NPR's Lynn Neary will host.