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Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.


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Monday, March 24

Coalition forces face trial by fire in Baghdad

By John Yaukey | Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - Coalition leaders and generals all had the same message following a weekend of tough fighting in southern Iraq: Brace for heavier casualties, especially as the battle moves on to heavily fortified Baghdad.

The U.S.-led assault on the city could begin within days.

''There will be casualties,'' U.S. commander Gen. Tommy Franks ominously warned Monday from Qatar.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair grimly told his Parliament that as troops advance on Baghdad `'there are bound to be difficult days ahead.''

This is hardly speculation. Indeed, it's based on Saddam Hussein's well-known plan to defend Baghdad by repelling coalition forces with astronomical body counts, prolonged house-to-house street fighting, and possibly weapons of mass destruction.

A Brookings Institution analysis of the war estimates American combat deaths could hit or exceed 5,000 if the combat in Baghdad goes badly. The number of wounded could run as high as 20,000, although that is a worst-case scenario.

Iraqi troop losses could hit 50,000, with civilian deaths in the same range. Saddam is estimated to have as many as 85,000 elite troops withdrawn to well-fortified regions in and around Baghdad.

Minimizing civilian casualties in Baghdad will be crucial for the Bush administration in winning support from Arab allies in the region and quelling anger in the Muslim world.

Saddam is well aware of this, war planners and experts say, and is prepared to sacrifice huge numbers of his people in an attempt to make it appear as though they were killed by coalition forces ravaging one of the Arab world's most historically important capitals.

``His hope is to create a Mesopotamian Stalingrad," said Rear Adm. John Sigler, referring to the infamous bloody urban siege during World War II.

Saddam's strategy

Saddam intends to exploit his densely populated capital city of more than 5 million by interspersing his troops among civilians.

Serb forces during the Kosovo war in 1999 employed the same techniques, forcing American and NATO aircraft to fly low on surgical bombing runs that typically yielded only small successes.

``Saddam has studied Kosovo and Mogadishu (where 18 U.S. troops were killed in urban combat in 1993)," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings. ``He has learned from these.''

If U.S. pilots are forced to fly low to find Iraqi forces in or near Baghdad, they would have to elude Saddam's air defense network, which before the bombing started last week consisted of 6,000 air defense guns and 1,500 surface-to-air missile launchers.

On the ground, coalition troops face potentially significant numbers of loyal Iraqi forces fighting on terrain they know well.

Initially, Saddam's elite Republican Guard troops are expected to defend Baghdad from dug-in positions surrounding the city as far as 20 miles out.

If Iraqi forces begin to take heavy losses there, military strategists fear they will retreat into the city's sprawling poor neighborhoods, where the streets are too narrow for coalition armored vehicles to pass.

This would force coalition troops out on foot, leaving them much more vulnerable.

If the Republican Guard refuses to surrender, they are the most likely troops to use chemical weapons against coalition forces.

Saddam is suspected of having large stores of the nerve agent VX, and before the war began, Pentagon officials reported that he authorized his troop commanders to use chemical weapons.

Franks said U.S. troops have been collecting information about possible chemical and biological weapons stores as they move north.

He said the pressure on Saddam to use those weapons would likely increase as coalition forces advance onto Baghdad.

According to the Brookings analysis, heavy use of chemical weapons, particularly chemical filled artillery shells and rockets, could increase coalition casualties by as much as 10 percent to 20 percent.

''Once Saddam realizes that he is facing the end in Baghdad, it's entirely possible he'll pull out all the stops,'' said Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.''

Saddam's inner circle

Saddam is not leaving the vital defense of Baghdad to his regular army.

Instead, he'll depend on his 60,000-man strong Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units, as well as the 25,000-man Fedayeen Saddam corps, a paramilitary unit founded in 1995.

U.S. forces have dropped more than 28 million leaflets, hoping to encourage mass defections among these and other troops.

But there is not much reason for Fedayeen Saddam forces - known as Saddam's "men of sacrifice'' - to surrender. They were founded by Saddam's son Odai, to put down rebellion among the Iraqis. Once Saddam falls, they would potentially face vengeful hordes.

Pentagon officials believe they are staging some of the ambush attacks on U.S. troops advancing north toward Baghdad.

Many of the elite Republican Guard troops are drawn from Saddam's ancestral town of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Fearing they might be tried as war criminals or executed by Iraqi civilians if they surrender, Republican Guard troops may also believe they have no choice but to fight until the end.

A likely early battle for Baghdad could pit the U.S. Army's rapidly advancing 3rd Infantry Division against the Republican Guard's top Medina, Hamurabi and Nebuchadnezzar divisions now believed to be positioned along the southern reaches of the city.

These units have been specially trained in the kind of street fighting Saddam envisions for American forces if his troops can't hold them along the city's perimeter.

"He (Saddam) wants us to believe that it will take 10,000 or more casualties to reduce Baghdad,'' Sigler said. "He thinks we won't be willing to pay that price, and therefore we won't go through with the operation at all."