WASHINGTON—As American Army and Marine columns battle to within 50 miles of Baghdad, the biggest challenge facing U.S.-led forces is how to take the Iraqi capital without a protracted, bloody battle.
American planners have no intention, desire or any real capability to besiege an ancient Arab city of 5 million people, and no interest whatsoever in fighting for Baghdad block-by-block, house-by-house, as they think Saddam Hussein would prefer.
Instead, American war planners foresee a swift, violent ground attack that will rely on accurate, up-to-the-minute intelligence from the very heart of the Iraqi regime. Relying on spies, electronic sensors and other intelligence to pinpoint Saddam and other top leaders, coalition special operations forces could infiltrate the Iraqi capital from all directions.
Armor-tipped infantry columns would blast into the heart of Baghdad along several corridors and swiftly isolate key areas from the rest of the sprawling city. Company-size infantry units—Marines and light infantry from the Army's 101st and 82nd airborne divisions, supported by tanks—then would attack the areas where Saddam and others were hiding.
One expert familiar with planning such an operation said it would require lightning strikes from rooftops, sewer tunnels and "entryways" blasted into the sides of buildings by the tanks.
It probably would require three to four days to plan the operation and rehearse it, and four or five days to carry it out.
"The idea is to cut off those areas, isolate them and then, with precision maneuvers and precision strikes, take them down," the expert said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity. "You've got to focus on the head of the snake. Look at the Israeli operations in the ྅ war: You put armor attacks down specific corridors, raid the targets, then come back out."
It is not clear that the intelligence available from the Iraqi capital is sufficient, either in quality or in quantity, to support such an operation, one senior Bush administration official conceded, also speaking on condition of anonymity. Another official said the attempt to kill Saddam and decapitate the Iraqi regime with an airstrike on a suburban Baghdad bunker last week largely failed because while U.S. bombs and cruise missiles destroyed the bunker, they did not attack a structure next door where Saddam and others apparently were.
The air and ground campaign against the two Republican Guard divisions blocking the two main routes into the city from the south is essential to the plan's success. If substantial numbers of the two divisions' 16,000 or so men succeed in retreating into the city, the plan could be doomed before it is launched.
But another senior administration official, who also asked not to be identified, said that while American air and satellite reconnaissance was partially blinded during Tuesday's intense sandstorm in Iraq, the Medina and Baghdad Republican Guard divisions apparently withdrew at least some of their troops and equipment into the capital.
The American plan also will require close cooperation among air, ground and special operations units, and those tactics have yet to be tested in battle.
The units committed to the battle cannot be left alone to finish the job against elements of three Republican Guard divisions and four Special Republican Guard brigades, as well as Saddam Fedayeen guerrillas and Baath Party thugs. Constant surveillance will be required, with rapid reaction forces standing by to reinforce the small units in the city.
"You are going to have to kill their combat capabilities," one military expert said. "If you kill the Medina Division but Saddam's best people are still roaming the battlefield, you have not succeeded. At best, this is going to be a very delicate operation."
A retired Army general said one key Air Force mission was to prevent Republican Guard elements from withdrawing into Baghdad, but that apparently it had failed.
"The Air Force has not been working particularly well at doing close air support. In their view, they are the decisive component but the teamwork is hardly what it should be," he said, adding, "It was the same in Afghanistan, where they did not adequately support either the Special Forces or the 10th Mountain Division."
While American planners envision a swift surgical strike that decapitates the Iraqi regime, Saddam's strategy so far has been to withdraw his best forces into the heartland, in the hope of fighting the battle for Baghdad on his home turf and his own terms. He apparently dreams of turning Baghdad into Stalingrad or Beirut or even Grozny, the capital of the rebellious Chechen republic that Russia has never been able to subdue.
The Battle of Stalingrad, which raged from August 1942 to February 1943, sealed the defeat of Nazi Germany. The fighting destroyed the city and division after division on both sides. At its height, one 20,000-man Soviet Army division was destroyed in three weeks. A single Russian sniper killed 242 Germans during the course of the battle.
British historian Antony Beevor said Saddam was obsessed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and would love to see Baghdad turned into Stalingrad on the Tigris River.
The last time American forces fought a pitched battle for a city was in Hue, during the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. In a battle that lasted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 26, 1968, the Marines fought an estimated 10,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops in the ancient imperial capital. When it was over, 142 Marines had been killed, hundreds more had been wounded and Hue City was roughly 18 inches high.
Quoting Napoleon, World War II Army Gen. George S. Patton once said the key component of any battle plan was "l'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace." There is ample audacity in the American plan for seizing Saddam's capital with a force as small as the one the Pentagon is employing.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
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