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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, April 7

U.S. forces try to avoid house-to-house fighting in Baghdad

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Baghdad is being entered at will by U.S. forces.

Every major route in and out of the city has been sealed.

The infamous Republican Guard, charged with defending the capital, has been smashed and scattered.

Now comes the tough part in the war's coup de grace battle for Saddam Hussein's seat of power: figuring out how to take Baghdad without fighting house to house, widely cited going into the war as potentially a worst-case scenario for its endgame.

Having to street fight for much of Baghdad would almost certainly escalate civilian casualties, destroy valuable infrastructure and homes, and alienate the very people U.S. forces are trying to win over.

Monday's capture of one of Saddam's palaces in downtown Baghdad provided a glimpse of how U.S. forces may go about moving into the sprawling city - by taking out Iraq's remaining forces and key targets piece by piece rather than in a dramatic sweep.

"When it comes to entering an urban area we do so very discriminantly,'' Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Monday during a press briefing in Doha, Qatar. ``We're disciplined, we're trained and we're very accurate. Our targets are carefully selected and our fires are very focused.''

The idea is to break Baghdad into a strategic grid and either destroy or occupy key targets with high precision raids when the resistance is off balance.

Indeed, what started in the night sky over Baghdad almost three weeks ago as a cutting-edge air campaign of "shock and awe'' looks like it will end in the city's streets as classic "divide and conquer.''

The first major test of the plan Saturday produced 2,000 to 3,000 casualties among Iraqi fighters, killed when the Army's 3rd Infantry Division swept through the Baghdad's southwestern industrial section.

Up until Monday, U.S. attempts to flush out Saddam's loyalists had entailed bold thrusts through downtown Baghdad by U.S. tank columns drawing fire, crushing opposition and then moving to the relative safety east and west of the city.

Seizing one of Saddam's newest and most opulent palaces gave the United States a much higher profile in the city, and sent a clear message to the Iraqis.

"Taking the palace, certainly says we're there,'' said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Help from Iraqis

Pentagon officials say defections by crumbling Iraqi forces and a willingness among civilians to provide critical information to U.S. forces are proving invaluable in weakening the remaining loyalists in Baghdad before any major confrontation in civilian areas can erupt.

"Iraqis have been assisting coalition forces in finding weapons caches,'' Myers said. "And we have been getting tips on targets all over - that's how we found Chemical Ali (Saddam's chemical weapons general, whose death was reported but not confirmed Monday).''

Many of the stored weapons have been found in schools, hospitals and mosques, which Iraqis know U.S. forces are extremely reluctant, if not unwilling, to target.

U.S. commanders say their troops have been playing it safe when it comes to minimizing civilian casualties and damage to important buildings and will continue to stick to that strategy as a critical part of earning the trust of the Iraqi people.

"We have taken fire from mosques and we have not returned it,'' Myers said.

A major blast in a Baghdad neighborhood late Monday afternoon, however, could cost U.S. forces some credibility if it turns out Iraqi civilians were killed on what is just the beginning of a major urban ground operation.

Peril in the shantytowns

If U.S. forces fail to keep the war out of Baghdad's tightly packed shantytowns, they face having to carry out a bloody urban battle that could be difficult to end and would almost certainly require major reinforcements.

Many of Baghdad's 5 million residents are densely packed into small, single and double-story homes with walled-in gardens that provide excellent cover.

American forces got a taste over the weekend of how ugly fighting in this kind of an environment could get if Iraq's remaining resistance is able to blend in with the civilian population.

Marines moving through Baghdad on Sunday were forced to leave the protection of their armored vehicles and move house to house - kicking in doors and gates and rounding up scared Iraqis - while trying to locate the source of moving assaults on their column.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the attacks "sporadic.''

But if they continue to spread through residential areas, U.S. forces could spend weeks trying to extinguish them while Iraqi civilians continue to live in fear and perhaps die at the hands of the force sent to liberate them.