| HIGH road FROM HELL: As fires rage in oil trenches around Baghdad, a car carrying a family leaves the Iraqi capital after what some residents described as a ‘night of hell’. (Reuters)
Kuwait, April 4: The US Army is at the international airport in Baghdad and the US Marines are closing in from the east of the Iraqi capital.
The capture of the airport was greeted with an Iraqi threat to hit back with “non-conventional” means. It also brought President Saddam Hussein “out” on the streets of Baghdad and prompted a televised speech that appeared to be the first evidence that he had survived a US strike on the first night of the war.
During the televised address, Saddam mentioned the shooting down of a US Apache helicopter, first disclosed by Iraq on March 24, four days after the war started.
Hours later, Iraqi television showed footage of what it said was Saddam visiting residential areas of Baghdad, cheered by a crowd of men, on Friday. But it could not be verified when the film — showing the first purported public appearance of Saddam in two years — was made.
What will the endgame in Baghdad, if indeed there will be one, be like'
In Basra, Iraq’s second city, the standoff between the Iraqi forces and the British is about to enter its third week. The British forces have still not entered the city, its artillery and armour “nibble” away at its edges, its propaganda machinery tries incessantly to wean away the citizenry and provoke them to rebel.
US Central Command spokesmen have been full of praise for the British tactics in Basra. It does not necessarily follow that American forces will use the same tactics.
The British strategy in Basra is time-consuming. For the military operations of the Americans, time is of the essence. Even a three- or four-day deliberate slowing down of the land assault was criticised because it was interpreted as an “operational pause”.
A “siege” of the city by cordoning it off, commandeering the highways leading out of it and making entry into and exit out of Baghdad is an all too obvious scenario. However, that is not only manpower intensive but also a long-drawn process.
“A ‘siege’ is outdated, it is a military tactic out of the 14th century,” said Colonel Chris Vernon, spokesman for the British forces in South Iraq, asked if that is what the coalition was doing in Basra province. But the approach of the British in the south of Iraq and the pace of the Americans in the march to the outskirts of Baghdad are a contrast.
So far, the US military has bypassed urban centres or has battled through them only on the road to Baghdad. But Baghdad is not en route, it is a military destination.
Recent pronouncements from the US establishment indicate, though, that the political objective of capturing Baghdad can be kept in abeyance for the time being. It feels that when Baghdad is isolated from the rest of the country, the city is “almost irrelevant”.
If the Iraqi defences have managed to withdraw into the city (at considerable cost because of the pounding from the air and by the artillery), they can be expected to put up a fight. It is an indication that the Iraqi establishment has been able to gather its forces around it.
Among the scenarios for a battle of Baghdad, the best-suited for the Americans is an “implosion”, when the political-military leadership inside Baghdad is overthrown or killed or replaced in a lightning move.
A less favoured option will be ‘coup de main’: an armoured thrust that will seek to surprise with speed in a charge to the centre of the city. If it reaches the centre, it can shock by its very presence. This will be heavily dependent on the intelligence available and the success or failure of missions carried out by special forces inserted earlier. The US special forces have shown a degree of success in the operations thus far.
Another option is that the forces involved will divide the area of responsibility in Baghdad among themselves. A fourth option is the ‘Basra’ model — a standoff marked by quick armour and commando raids — that is yet to be successful.
Either way, the likelihood of urban warfare is high, meaning civilian deaths can mount. US forces have not been in large scale urban wars since 1968. The military operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 was smaller in scale, though it, too, took eight weeks and involved thousands of troops.
Baghdad is a huge metropolis with a river flowing in between like the Hooghly flows between Howrah and Calcutta. So far at least, there is no evidence of a large-scale exodus of refugees.
In September last year, Joseph Hoar, a former US commander-in-chief of the Central Command — a predecessor of General Tommy Franks who is commanding Operation Iraqi Freedom — drew a “nightmare scenario” before a Senate Armed Services Committee of six Iraqi Republican Guard divisions and six heavy divisions defending Baghdad.
Long before that, more than 500 years before the US as we know it, Chengiz Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, also stood at the gates of Baghdad in the Mongol invasion through Persia. Baghdad in the year 1258 was under the Abbasids.
Chengiz Khan sent an ultimatum to the ruler of Baghdad that was spurned. The city of one million people was destroyed. Baghdad is now at least seven times as large.