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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 25 March, 2003, 10:55 GMT
The high cost of urban warfare
By Tarik Kafala
BBC News Online

In the build-up to war, Iraqi newspapers carried editorials about the US military's experience in Vietnam and more recently in 1993 in Somalia when 18 US servicemen were killed in Mogadishu's labyrinth of alleys.

We let them go for a walk in the desert, but all our towns will resist
Iraqi Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan
The aim of the editorials was probably to raise the morale of Iraqi soldiers.

But with US-led forces meeting stiff resistance and suffering casualties as they try to take even small Iraqi towns, the analogy now seems prescient.

"We let them go for a walk in the desert, but all our towns will resist," Vice-President Taha Yassin Ramadan has said.

Bluster or not, coalition forces now face the possibility of having to clear Iraqi towns and cities street by street - something that takes a great deal of time and may exact a high price in casualties, both military and civilian.

US troops training in Kuwait
US troops training for urban warfare in Kuwait before going into Iraq
Short of a chemical or biological weapons attack, guerrilla-type urban warfare is the US-led coalition's greatest fear in Iraq - a type of fighting that has the potential to even out the overwhelming superiority of the forces invading Iraq.

"The basic problem with urban warfare is that you have buildings, streets, bridges, and civilians to negotiate.

"It is impossible to use stand-off weapons [weapons used at a distance] and you don't have a clear view of the terrain," Tim Ripley of the Centre of Defence Studies at Lancaster University told BBC News Online.

"Simply put, you don't know where the enemy is and your usual methods for killing them aren't much use."

Defending the cities

In 1991, Iraq lost thousands of soldiers in the vast southern desert. The lesson from this appears to have been: cede the open spaces and defend the cities.

Military analysts believe that the Iraqi Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard have been specifically trained in urban warfare.

Reports have suggested that no Republican Guard units were stationed in the south of Iraq - that all had been stationed to defend Baghdad and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

A militia, Saddam's Fedayeen, are also expected to play a major role in defending the cities.

Tactical doctrine stresses that urban combat operations are conducted only when required and that built-up areas are isolated and bypassed rather than risking a costly, time-consuming operation in this difficult environment
US Army field manual
American military planners have been aware of this, and US troops have trained for this eventuality in the US and Kuwait during the months of military build-up.

Pictures of US soldiers working their way from one cardboard house to the next were widely broadcast and published - perhaps intended to deliver the message that coalition forces were willing to engage in this kind of warfare if necessary.

Baghdad, many military analysts say, might well be at the heart of the crucial battle for central Iraq.

It is home to five million people, and is reported to be defended by four Republican Guard divisions.

However, Paul Beaver, a BBC military analyst, says that the American plan is not to go into Baghdad or other large cities.

The American aim, he says, is to surround the cities in the hope that the Iraqi Republican Guard can be drawn out into the open, or the Iraqi military capitulates.

Fear of street fighting

A deep nervousness over urban warfare has permeated US military doctrine.

Baghdad skyline
Baghdad is expected to be the scene of street by street fighting
The US Army field manual has this to say: "Tactical doctrine stresses that urban combat operations are conducted only when required and that built-up areas are isolated and bypassed rather than risking a costly, time-consuming operation in this difficult environment."

Historically, urban warfare has been among the most difficult offensive operations, leaving many attackers and defenders dead.

Russian forces who met resistance from Chechen rebels using guerrilla tactics in Grozny simply levelled the city under artillery bombardment - unrestrained by concern for civilian casualties.

This is not really an option for the US-led forces - victory using the Russian tactics in Chechnya might be a strategic and political disaster.


A potted history of urban warfare:
Stalingrad, 1942-43: Soviet defence of Stalingrad in World War II cost the attacking German army dearly and established the conditions for a Russian counter-offensive that was decisive in the wider context of the war. The battle lasted more than 30 days and historians estimate that more than 1.5 million people died.

Berlin, 1945: It took more than two weeks for Soviet forced to capture the German capital in World War II, effectively the last battle of the war in Europe. The numbers of dead may have been in the tens of thousands.

Manila, 1945: A Japanese naval commander defended the city against advancing US troops with poorly equipped and trained personnel. US forces suffered heavy losses and much of the city and its population was destroyed.

Seoul, 1950: Following the Inchon landing, US and Republic of Korea forces recaptured the South Korean capital from the North Koreans. More than 2,000 US marines are believed to have died, along with thousands of non-Americans on both sides.

Jerusalem, 1967: Israeli forces seized East Jerusalem from Jordanian forces. Israel suffered an estimated 400 casualties, while Jordanian deaths were in their hundreds.

Hue, 1968: In what is considered one of the most bloody battles of the Vietnam war, North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong forces captured the walled city of Hue in South Vietnam. They held out for about three weeks against US and South Vietnamese forces. More than 400 US Marines died. An estimated 5,000 other fighters on both sides died.

Suez City, 1973: Israeli forces tried to capture the Egyptian city before the anticipated UN ceasefire to end the Yom Kippur War. High casualties forced the Israeli Defense Force to withdraw. More than 100 Israelis are believed to have died. Egyptian casualties are unknown.

Mogadishu, 1993: Eighteen US servicemen in Somalia, sent to restore order and safeguard relief supplies, were killed in a fire fight in the capital, Mogadishu.




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