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Monday, March 31

Coalition forces lose key advantages as war moves from desert to urban areas

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - During the Persian Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition depended heavily on technology and terrain to rout Iraqi troops.

The open desert of Kuwait allowed U.S. helicopters, fighter jets and tanks to pick off Iraqi targets at safe distances using precision-guided weapons.

As the war to topple Saddam Hussein moves from the open, arid terrain of southern Iraq to the greener Euphrates Valley and into Baghdad, coalition forces will slowly start to lose some of those advantages, say military analysts.

``Kuwait was as ideal a battlefield as we have ever seen,'' said former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, author of ``The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.'' ``This time we're not fighting on an open table top.''

Perhaps the most telling example of that thus far is occurring in U.S. confrontations with Iraq's elite Republican Guard units assigned to defend Baghdad.

During some of the first engagements between U.S. Apache Longbow helicopters and Iraq's Republican Guard south of Baghdad, nearly every one of the U.S. helicopters was hit with ground fire.

The closer the fighting gets to the capital, the more coalition forces will be drawn into this kind of close combat with Saddam's troops where technological superiority can often quickly crumble.

If the fighting in the southern Iraq cities of Basra and An Nasiriyah is any indicator, coalition forces could face an ugly guerrilla conflict with Republican Guard units looking to use any trick available to compensate for their mechanical and technical inferiority.

``Some of the biggest losses we've taken are due to Iraqis committing serious violations of the law of armed conflict in the Geneva Convention by dressing as civilians - by luring us into surrender situations then opening fire on our troops,'' said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Technological limits

The coalition soldiers deployed in Iraq carry some of the most advanced battlefield technology ever developed.

Many are equipped with night-vision goggles. They can paint targets with lasers for pinpoint accuracy and communicate with air-support helicopters and bombers for some of the closest joint air-ground operations in military history.

Urban environments, however, can wreak havoc with many of these advantages.

Dense construction in these areas can hamper surveillance and communications equipment, and provides especially good cover for a host enemy that knows its own streets well.

Simply passing by windows and doors will prove dangerous for coalition forces in some areas of Baghdad, and there's not much technology can do to eliminate that hazard. Strategists anticipate heavy Iraqi sniper fire from rooftops and stealthy enemy troop movements through the sewers.

Close-up urban fighting also limits much of the heavy equipment U.S. ground forces have come to rely on, often leaving it vulnerable to relatively low-tech assaults.

In the tight streets of Baghdad, the vaunted U.S. M1A1 tank would lose the kind of standoff advantage that allowed American tanks to pound Iraqi equipment while remaining out of range during the first gulf war.

American Blackhawk helicopters can ferry small teams into city streets with great speed. But as the 1993 U.S. battle in Mogadishu made apparent, these helicopters can be brought down with crude, shoulder-fired grenades when they're forced to fly low.

What's more, tall structures such as towers and electrical poles can prove hazardous for low-flying helicopters, and greatly limit their effectiveness.

Military analysts warn that Saddam has carefully studied battle tactics and history with the intent of using its lessons to foil the coalition forces and their technical advantages.

``I think we can be very confident that Saddam knows there are certain things our air power has a very hard time doing,'' said military expert Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. ``Mogadishu as well is something Saddam hasn't forgotten.''

There is considerable debate about whether Saddam will resort to chemical weapons once it appears likely Baghdad is about to fall.

According to U.S. intelligence reports, some Republican Guard units are equipped with chemical protective gear, and Saddam has reportedly authorized some of his field commanders to use chemical weapons.

If he uses the nerve agents he is suspected of hoarding, coalition troops will be forced to don their gas masks and protection suits, which will only make moving quickly in tight urban spaces more cumbersome and complicated.

Softening Baghdad

With battles for cities in southern Iraq, especially Basra and An Nasiriyah, taking longer than expected, U.S. forces are looking to soften the troops that will defend Baghdad significantly with airstrikes before engaging them.

``We are seeing significant degradation of those forces,'' Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said Monday. ``I won't put an exact number on it, but I'll say very significant weakening of the forces.''

Coalition troops have been launching close to a thousand sorties a day against units in and around Baghdad, but they have not been able to use the kind of heavy high-altitude carpet bombing that was so effective in Afghanistan.

Most of the territory where the Republican Guard units have positioned themselves is near civilian areas where an errant bomb or two could kill large numbers of innocent Iraqis.

That forces coalition war planners to make the difficult calculation of how much of Baghdad to destroy before sending in potentially vulnerable American soldiers for what could be some of the worst combat of the war.