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U.S. forces in Iraq have experience in urban warfare

WASHINGTON—If the battle for Fallujah unfolds like other urban-combat operations in Iraq, a big part of it will involve troops on foot working closely with heavily armored vehicles to probe the city's neighborhoods, drawing fire that reveals enemy positions.

Once soldiers have pinpointed insurgents' positions, they can call in fire from jets and gunships orbiting overhead, from artillery and mortars stationed outside the city, from snipers close to the front or from tanks designed during the Cold War that are advancing with the troops.

"I believe you're going to see a major use of tanks and infantry," said David Aaron, the director of Rand Corp.'s Center for Middle East Public Policy. "It turns out that the tank we thought we were going to fight the Russians with is the best thing we've got to fight in an urban environment."

A combined U.S.-Iraqi ground assault by about 15,000 troops began Monday on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad.

Last year, as American forces invaded Iraq, many analysts warned that the fight for Baghdad could involve a long period of close-quarters combat. Instead, tanks rolled into the city with far less resistance than expected, and Saddam Hussein's regime fell within days.

But the battles against the insurgency that sprang up after the invasion have been fought mostly on the densely packed streets and among the buildings of Iraqi cities, where it's difficult for tanks to maneuver. The battle for Fallujah is shaping up to be the largest of such confrontations.

From a tactical perspective, it's no surprise that insurgents stay in cities, said Lt. Col. Raymond Millen of the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, who's an urban warfare expert. Insurgent fighters are relatively easy prey in the open of Iraq's desert or agricultural areas. There, American forces can quickly apply superior technology and overwhelming firepower to find and kill them.

In a city, insurgents can hide in fortified buildings, firing from inside or scooting from one to another as they fend off approaching troops or lure them into ambushes.

In Fallujah, they're likely to fight as they have elsewhere: firing assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at troops and funneling them down routes lined with homemade bombs.

"The big fights, where you're going to see lots of casualties, are when defenders create miniature fortresses," Millen said. "Your infantry gets sucked into those things, and that's when you see casualties building up."

U.S. forces have managed to keep casualties relatively low in previous urban battles in Iraq. In three weeks of fighting a Shiite Muslim insurgency in the streets and massive cemetery of Najaf this summer, seven Marines and two soldiers were killed out of a force of about 3,000.

"If you go in there well and you go in there methodically—if you have a good plan—you're not going to have as many casualties," Millen said.

It also might turn out that many insurgents slipped out of Fallujah during the weeks-long buildup or will try to blend in as noncombatants now that the offensive is under way.

Gen. George Casey, the American commander in Iraq, said Monday that he estimated that 3,000 insurgents were in Fallujah.

"We're either to have a major battle or showdown, or we'll have a sizable one but they (the insurgents) will melt away again," said Aaron, the Middle East analyst. "My guess is there will be a sizable battle, but it will not be a definitive event."

Maj. Francis Piccoli, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Fallujah, said last week: "If there's a fight in Fallujah, there would be no holds barred. We would go after the enemy with an overwhelming force. ... We're prepared to run over these people."

Since mid-October, U.S. forces have ringed the city and launched almost daily airstrikes and artillery barrages on insurgents' positions and weapons caches.


(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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