As Sayliya camp, Qatar, April 1 (Reuters): The last time an invading army tried to capture a city the size of Baghdad, more than 120,000 Soviet soldiers and Germans were left dead in the streets of Berlin.
No one yet dares imagine that the looming battle for Baghdad will be a replay of the battle for the German capital in 1945.
But with President Saddam Hussein and his loyalist fighters promising to battle the US-led invasion force street by street, the Iraqi capital — with its five million people — could be the biggest urban battlefield since World War II.
US war planners are already preparing the public for the sort of bloodshed their troops have not faced in a generation.
“We’re prepared to pay a very high price because we are not going to do anything other than ensure that this regime goes away,” one senior official at the US Central Command in Qatar said on Monday, speaking under condition of anonymity.
“If that means there will be a lot of casualties, then there will be a lot of casualties.”
The pattern of urban warfare over the past few decades has been of overconfident attackers underestimating the scale of the task. Cities limit an attacker’s technological advantage, and favour the defender who knows the streets.
On New Year’s Eve, 1994, Russian tanks rolled into the Chechen capital of Grozny, led by commanders who were convinced they would easily “liberate” the city of 400,000.
Lightly armed rebels caught the tanks at intersections and destroyed them with rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of Russian soldiers died in a single night.
To take Grozny, the Russians razed it, block by block, over two months. No one knows how many thousands of civilians died. “The defenders of Grozny, who were very motivated, finally gave up after a month of bombing and the total destruction of the city. They said they just couldn’t go on anymore, they had to stop,” said retired Colonel Jean-Louis Dufour, author of War, the City and the Soldier.
“I wonder whether the American strategy won’t be similar. A bit less brutal, because they can’t destroy all of Baghdad, but they can harass it permanently with bombs so (the defenders) are exhausted.”
Lancaster University defence expert Tim Ripley drew comparisons with the unexpectedly dogged resistance Israel faced in its assault on the Lebanese capital in 1982 to curb the influence of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
“The best analogy is Beirut,” he said, predicting that US and British forces will face stiff opposition in Baghdad.
From the outset, the US and British war planners, keen to win Iraqi hearts and minds in the war that has divided world opinion, have underlined a desire to avoid an all-out urban assault.
“Militarily, it would be feasible but I think it would be disastrous politically,” said William Hopkinson, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
“You can imagine it — starving children, disease breaking out, and this going on for weeks. It would inflame the world and recruit lots of terrorists for (Osama) Bin Laden,” he said, referring to the suspected mastermind of the attacks on the US on September 11.
But if the Iraqi leadership is able to make a stand in the city, the alternative could be a long siege. “It is difficult to say what will happen when the hospitals fill up with wounded and the food supplies start to run down,” said Vladimir Kuzar of the Russian defence ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.
Taking Baghdad street by street would require a major force experienced in such warfare. Americans have little or no experience of urban warfare since they took the city of Hue in central Vietnam in a battle in 1968.
“Street fighting is extraordinarily difficult. It needs very well-trained troops, which is not the case of the whole of the American army,” Dufour said.
War planners have signalled that the British operation around the southern Iraqi city of Basra will be a rehearsal of their tactics for Baghdad.