Battle lines are being drawn in the sand


The US and Britain are poised to attack Iraq but they must consider the nightmare scenario of street-to-street fighting in cities, writes Tom Clonan

As 2002 draws to a close, US and British forces seem poised for an all-out assault on Iraq. The forces being assembled in the Gulf represent a steadily growing and potent force.

The US at present has approximately 60,000 troops on the ground in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition, the US has four aircraft carrier battle groups in the region, with a fifth to be in place by early January.

These battle groups include USS Harry Truman, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Constellation and Kitty Hawk, each carrying approximately 75 combat aircraft. Each battle group is escorted by a screen of cruisers, destroyers and attack submarines deployed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

This concentration of sea-borne air power is augmented by approximately 100 aircraft at the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, a squadron of F-117 stealth fighters in Kuwait and a number of high-altitude bombers at the Diego Garcia air base.

The British Royal Air Force also has Tornado squadrons based alongside US aircraft in Bahrain. At present, these air assets combined would give the British and Americans the ability to strike up to 700 targets a day within Iraq. This compares with approximately 160 a day during the Gulf war.

The British have added to US air and ground capabilities in the region by committing an aircraft carrier group to the Gulf, which includes HMS Ark Royal and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. This has given rise to the belief that the British are planning to commit the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade to joint operations with US marines in the region.

Military analysts believe that troops from the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and the Royal Marine 3rd Commando Brigade could launch a combined attack on Basra in early February.

It is believed that such an attack would be co-ordinated to commence shortly after Hans Blix delivers the preliminary report of his weapons inspectors to the UN on January 27th.

Basra is considered a vital first step in a possible invasion of Iraq. At the head of the Persian Gulf, it represents an ideal staging post for a much larger invasion force to proceed deeper into Iraqi territory. At present, plans are afoot to concentrate up to between 250,000 and 300,000 troops in the region by early February. Among those forces would be troops from the elite US 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Air Cavalry Division. Military planners would be hoping that a sudden and decisive defeat of Iraqi forces in Basra might lead to a collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad.

A key factor in US and British battle estimates is a negative appraisal of the motivation and willingness of Iraqi troops to fight. While it is known that there are approximately 424,000 regular troops, with a further 125,000 or so Republican Guards, it is believed these troops are poorly trained and equipped.

Ironically, it is believed that President Saddam's paranoia and fear of potential military rivals was the principal reason why the Iraqi military has been rarely permitted to exercise or train in large formations.

President Saddam's recent announcement that Iraq is prepared to wage a Jihad or "holy war" against the West represents an attempt by him to galvanise and invigorate a demoralised and ill-equipped Iraqi military.

If the Iraqi military can be persuaded to dig in and fight in Iraqi cities, the war in Iraq may take on a very ugly complexion.

Far from the high-tech, high-spec image of the Gulf war, this war might degenerate into a more conventional campaign in the close confines of cities such as Basra and Baghdad.

In other words, a war fought by armoured divisions supported by infantry and close air support in a densely populated civilian environment. This type of urban warfare could bring with it many thousands of military and civilian casualties.

It is a type of warfare that would be ideal for the Iraqi military. In the face of US air superiority, a lot of Iraqi military equipment, such as Soviet manufactured T-72 tanks, troop carriers and artillery, is obsolete in open desert warfare. However, if dispersed and well dug-in in an urban environment, Iraqi units using relatively primitive equipment might prove very difficult to dislodge.

Advancing US and British armour would be very vulnerable to Iraqi artillery and armour concealed among tons of concrete and steel in narrow city streets where fire and manoeuvre is difficult to achieve.

Iraqi troops, deploying low-tech weapons such as 155mm artillery pieces and firing over open sights in a direct-fire role, could disable the most advanced main battle tanks the West possesses. In such a nightmare scenario, US and British infantry and armour would have to advance in a bitterly contested, street-by-street campaign against hundreds of improvised Iraqi strong-points.

A well-motivated and determined Iraqi force deployed throughout cities, and enjoying the support of the local population, would be relatively invulnerable to air assault and well disposed to resist local ground attack.

It remains to be seen if the West would tolerate the saturation bombing of such cities, or if the political will would exist to carpet-bomb the Iraqis, civilian and military alike, into submission.

As the countdown to war continues, Western military planners will be hoping for a spectacular early success.

The alternatives are grim for both the US and the Iraqi people themselves. One of the tragedies of this situation is that a resolution of the crisis in Iraq by force may precipitate further such solutions in countries such as Iran or as far afield as Korea.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army officer with experience in the Middle East and former Yugoslavia. He is a fellow of the US-based inter-university seminar on armed forces and society. He currently lectures on the political economy of communication in the school of media, DIT.