| Iraqi clerics shout anti-war slogans outside a Baghdad mosque on Friday. (Reuters)
London, March 28: Saddam Hussein hopes to turn the battle for Baghdad into a Mesopotamian version of Stalingrad.
The Iraqi President is an admirer of Josef Stalin. He has modelled his ruthless rule and cult of personality on the Soviet leader. As the US-led invasion force stretches its supply lines to reach Baghdad, military analysts and Iraq experts say Saddam’s most loyal, best-equipped troops are digging in to try to inflict the kind of carnage that stopped Hitler at the Volga river in 1943.
The first and most crucial test is likely to come near the cities of Karbala and Kut along a so-called “red line” that forms a ring south of Baghdad, where US troops are massing now. If Saddam can avoid a military collapse there that would drag down his entire regime, analysts expect him to regroup his forces for street-to-street combat in the capital. And then, he appears to be counting on the modern weapons of media and world politics for his survival.
The Iraqi regime has spent years preparing for this showdown. Its strategists have researched US military involvement in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. Experts say videotapes of the movie Black Hawk Down, which recounts the frenzied combat in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, circulated among military men in Baghdad in recent months.
“People say to me you are not the Vietnamese, you have no jungles and swamps to hide in,” said Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy Prime Minister, in an interview published recently by the International Institute for Strategic Studies here. “I reply: ‘Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings be our jungles’.”
In tactics, technology and firepower, the force closing in on Baghdad is far superior to the US military that fought in Vietnam, or the German army that slowly froze, starved and ran out of ammunition in the snow and rubble of Stalingrad. But Saddam’s strategy relies as much on psychology as it does on armament.
The failure of the first Bush administration to finish him off during in 1991 Persian Gulf War convinced Saddam that his foes do not have the stomach for an ugly fight. Emboldened by the performance of his fighters in southern Iraq, he thinks he could negotiate his survival if his capital resists a siege for as little as a month to six weeks, said Toby Dodge, a professor at Warwick University.
Iraqi leaders hope gruesome televised images of civilian and military casualties will cause an uproar that forces the Anglo-American coalition to back down, analysts said. As farfetched as that may seem to outsiders, what counts is that Saddam’s regime takes the scenario seriously.
“I think that’s crazy, but they believe it to their bootstraps,” said Dodge, one of Britain’s leading scholars on Iraq. “And with what’s happened in the south, I think the Iraqi leaders have surprised themselves. If the Americans are getting that much flak from Shia conscripts, it will be a hell of a fight when they get to the Republican Guard.”
As the two sides prepare for heavy combat in and around Baghdad, experts debate two crucial issues. One is the abilities of well-paid, highly motivated troops including the Republican Guard, a force of an estimated 70,000 soldiers and 700 T-72 tanks. The other is Iraq’s possible use of chemical weapons.
Although some Republican Guard commanders resent Saddam, they are also proudly professional and despise Americans and Israelis. Past coup attempts by some units have caused the wary Saddam to station them along the “red line” about 30 miles outside of Baghdad. Experts expect that defensive outer ring of forces to engage US forces near key points such as Kut, Karbala and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
During the first Gulf War, US forces routed the Republican Guard, who were outgunned and tactically weak. But they also showed themselves to be disciplined and tenacious.
As US forces bear down, the outer Republican Guard ring has two choices. It can attempt to hold its dug-in positions under a blistering onslaught. Or it can fall back toward the city proper, which is defended by the Special Republican Guard, a force that Saddam regards as staunchly loyal. Both tactics are risky. Retreat could risk severed supply lines and confusion as the two Iraqi contingents meet, according to Michael Clark, director of the Defence Studies Centre at King’s College in London.
“Once they start moving, they become more vulnerable,” Clark said. “Even very well-disciplined armies have trouble merging together.”
The next few days will be key, Clark said. If the Republican Guard can stop the Americans from punching a hole through their defences, Iraq will win points in a propaganda battle focused on civilian deaths and, in some quarters, a perception that a brave underdog has stymied the most powerful military force in history. On the other hand, if the attack rumbles forward with little difficulty, the military and political momentum will swing in the opposite direction.
Lawrence Freedman, another defence expert at King’s College, said US and British forces ought to be able to overcome the Republican Guards. Iraq’s defence minister conceded as much in comments yesterday. Sultan Hashim Ahmed told a news conference that the US-led forces might well be able to surround Baghdad in the next five to 10 days.