WASHINGTON The American military is training furiously and polishing
a plan for attacking Baghdad that calls for isolating the city and then taking
control of it by seizing or destroying Saddam Hussein's pillars of power
but avoiding house-to-house combat in its hostile streets.
The new strategy is a significant change in Pentagon doctrine. In World War
II, the American military dealt with the difficult question of urban combat by
using heavy artillery, intense fire-bombing and, twice over Japan, even atomic
weapons. Since the war, the strategy had been to isolate urban areas, then move
on to other targets.
Today, commanders still say they would rather avoid fighting in Baghdad and
other Iraqi cities, which could result in thousands of American casualties and
even more civilian deaths. But now, with Republican Guard units digging in around
Baghdad, they may have no choice should Mr. Hussein and his die-hard adherents
choose to make a last stand.
If they must fight there, American generals say, they will choose their targets
carefully and try to overwhelm them with such decisive force that the Iraqis'
will to fight collapses.
To that end, marines are training in new mock cities on military bases on
Guam and in southern California. At an Army training center in Louisiana, more
than 3,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y.,
prepared today for an overnight attack Tuesday on another fake city.
At the same time, intelligence agencies are rushing to update military maps
using high-resolution satellite photographs, military officials say. They have
also asked foreign construction companies for blueprints of the palaces and ministry
buildings they built for Mr. Hussein.
In just the past few years, the whole American doctrine of urban warfare has
changed. Where the strategy had been either to avoid cities or to destroy them,
under the new doctrine the Pentagon's goal would be to isolate the cities, then
selectively attack the pillars of the govrnment.
Fighting block by block is considered too risky and too likely to cement popular
defiance. Rather, the military hopes Mr. Hussein's government would implode as
he loses control over his loyalists.
That approach requires accurate intelligence, tight coordination and rapid
movement by the attacking forces. It also calls for faith that civilians would
welcome their "liberation," as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has suggested.
Even if Baghdad fell, a bloody urban battle with a high civilian toll could
be seen as a political failure for the Bush administration at home and
throughout the Middle East.
Senior military officials say American troops are prepared to fight and win
in the cities of Iraq, but they are planning on ways to avoid that kind of Pyrrhic
"If we got into the situation where there was combat in the city, I'm comfortable
that our forces know how to do that even though we prefer to prevent that from
happening," said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
who commanded a Marine rifle platoon during the vicious fight to oust the North
Vietnamese Army from Hue in 1968.
What worries the generals is how cityscapes rob the American military of many
of its overwhelming advantages. Even guided long-range bombs can be risky to use
in dense cities. Radios often do not work. The best surveillance equipment cannot
always find enemies in alleys.
The broad details are spelled out in a document called "Joint Publication
3-06: Doctrine for Joint Urban Operations." The paper was completed just one month
ago by the Joint Staff, and incorporates lessons learned in the American missions
in Mogadishu, Somalia; Belgrade, Serbia; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and in the
Russian fight for Grozny, the capital of Chechyna. [The document is online at
The "multidimensional surveillance" it calls for is already under way, pinpointing
political and military headquarters, electrical and water supplies, food distribution
centers and broadcast studios as well as places like mosques, embassies
and Red Cross warehouses that should not be attacked.
An attack would start with a siege, not just by troops and weapons, but by
a wall of electronic jamming. The goal is to "control the flow of supplies, personnel
and information into and within the urban area" in order to "physically and psychologically
isolate" it. There would be broadcasts and leaflets to demoralize fighters and
calm civilians; similar operations would continue after state-run television and
radio stations fell.
When and if fighters enter a city, they need "overwhelming combat power"
not to level the city but to capture or destroy crucial targets with such "speed,
firepower and shock" that resistance collapses.
"First, you want to control all routes in and out of the city," said Lt. Col.
John Nicholson, who commanded the first of the Army's new Stryker brigade combat
teams built around quickly deployable, wheeled armored vehicles that could spearhead
an urban assault. "You want to isolate the city. Then you want to isolate specific
targets inside the city. You don't want to take the whole city. Rather, you want
to control it by destroying some objectives and controlling others."
The military must be ready to deal with refugees, relief aid and civil order,
including crowd control, and to get power stations and water treatment plants
up and running in parts of a city that have surrendered or have been seized.
"I wouldn't get sucked into the cities," said Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a former
head of the Central Command. "There would be a lot of casualties on our side,
we'd kill a lot of civilians and destroy a lot of infrastructure, and the images
on Al Jazeera wouldn't help us at all," a reference the Arabic satellite network.
Political considerations play a major part in shaping the plan. "You must
have a clear understanding of the political objectives," said Colonel Nicholson,
now an aide to the secretary of the Army, Thomas E. White. "You can't just go
in and rubble a city if your goal is to quickly transition to a post-conflict
That is why modern doctrine sees no point in razing cities.
"You need to figure out what pieces of the city or what things you have to
attack in order to get the results you want," said James A. Lasswell, a retired
colonel at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, Va., who played
a pivotal role in rewriting the Marines' doctrine on urban combat.
Historically, military forces attacking cities have suffered 30 to 40 percent
casualties in the intensive fighting. In war games, the new approach has reduced
estimated casualties to 10 percent.
At Quantico, a team of marines assigned to a study called Project Metropolis
have found that new tactics are probably more important than new technology.
Jet and helicopter pilots simulating attacks to support ground troops are
rehearsing new angles of attack, having discovered that plate glass windows in
office buildings can deflect the lasers used to identify their targets. When four
infantrymen move with a single M1-A1 tank, others can keep watch over rooftops,
windows and other enemy outposts while the tanks provide devastating firepower
that no foot soldier can match.
Marine experts at Quantico found that it takes four or five weeks
twice what most Army and Marine Corps infantry units spend each year training
for urban fighting to become proficient at the new tactics. Some training
can be done at rudimentary sites, with mock houses rigged of two-by-fours and
plastic tarpaulins. A number of bases have complexes with 30 or so buildings that
troops quickly master.
Marines are now using a 1,000-building complex at George Air Force Base, a
shuttered installation in southern California. There, as in a strange city, many
buildings look alike. There are no street signs. Marines learn to divide the mock
city into grids, and to call in air strikes.
"We still don't have enough training facilities that put the average marine
or soldier in an urban environment," said Randy Gangle, a retired colonel at the
Warfighting Laboratory who was instrumental in developing in the Marine Corps's
new urban combat doctrine.
Old tactics, and the clichés that describe them, are being discarded.
Army and Marine ground troops do not talk so much about kicking down the doors;
too often, they are booby-trapped.
Instead, for example, they are studying how the Israeli Army, in the recent
fighting in Jenin, used specially loaded tank rounds to blast holes in the walls
of buildings. The charge is designed to open the wall, but not to blast through
the building, collapse it or hit what lies beyond.
Technology has its role. Ground-penetrating radar and heat sensors can locate
enemy fighters in tunnels or behind walls.
One such device was quietly loaned to rescue teams after the Sept. 11 attacks
on the World Trade Center, Pentagon officials said. Called the Tactical Mobile
Robot, this small, remote-controlled vehicle, which is still undergoing tests,
burrows through walls or concrete and sends back pictures.
Urban operations would begin after sundown, when American optical technology
allows its forces to dominate the battlefield while many adversaries are blinded
by the night. Most residents are at home, so they do not fill the streets. The
streets are the most dangeous place.
"We expect 80 percent of our casualties would be outside the buildings and
in between," said Col. Robert L. Caslen Jr., chief of staff for the 10th Mountain
Division, whose 2nd Brigade is preparing for an urban assault exercise this week
in Louisiana. "Roads and alleys channelize your movements, and they give a great
field of fire for the enemy."
More than 2,500 years ago, the Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, warned
that urban combat tires troops, courts casualties and voids a victory. "The worst
policy is to attack cities," he wrote.
Today, Pentagon strategists have seen little to alter that analysis.
"If we have to fight a pitched battle in Baghdad," said one senior officer
with access to the war planners, "it means we screwed up somewhere along the way."
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