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The World | SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ

U.S. Risks a Long War if It Invades, Iraqis Warn

March 08, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The conventional wisdom in the West is that a war against Iraq would be relatively swift: a brief interval of awe-striking U.S. and British bombing; a juggernaut invasion by armor fitted with the latest in weaponry; airborne troops swooping down on key installations; many Iraqis rising up against their government and the Iraqi army and Republican Guard tripping over one another to surrender or desert.

But for all of the U.S. military's technological superiority, many Iraqis -- in government offices and in the streets -- foresee a more difficult battle awaiting the allies.

They believe that their nation has something going for it that could prevent such an easy victory: Iraqi troops, civilians and ruling Baath Party activists would be fighting an invader on their own ground for their own homes and families and, at senior levels of the regime, for their very existence.

If resistance can survive the initial shock of the bombardment and land-and-air assault, these Iraqis reason, they may be able to inflict high casualties and force allied troops into urban warfare. Over time, they believe, they could subject U.S. and British soldiers to stubborn sniping, sabotage and other forms of harassment, bringing about a Vietnam-style quagmire that Iraq could conceivably win.

According to sources in Baghdad and military analysts abroad, the Iraqi armed forces likely would try to be fleet and spread out, having learned to avoid concentrating troops in the open or on military bases that present easy targets from the air. After the initial bombardments, they would try to disperse to civilian areas, retreating from large swaths of territory in the north and south -- possibly leaving behind scorched earth in the form of blown bridges and flaming oil fields -- until they reach Baghdad.

Defensive rings have been built around the city, one diplomat here noted. If the expected force of more than 200,000 British and U.S. soldiers is drawn into urban warfare, Iraqis believe that they can contest Baghdad, street by street and block by block, in a war of small arms, heavy machine guns and mortar shells.

To the world, which would likely see much of the fighting on television, it would seem a David vs. Goliath struggle. And the Iraqis surely are aware of how that biblical battle ended.

So far, the assumption of U.S. military planners has been that the Iraqi people are sufficiently ambivalent about President Saddam Hussein to be unwilling to sacrifice their lives for his regime, so that resistance would start to collapse as soon as an allied victory seems inevitable.

However, Iraq is an old, proud country with a long tradition of opposing foreign domination, especially by non-Muslims. There's a chance that many citizens would resist, viewing U.S. and British troops as occupiers rather than liberators.

In theory, Iraq could field an army of 350,000 troops, along with 2,600 Soviet-era battle tanks, 2,100 artillery pieces and hundreds of rocket launchers and surface-to-surface missiles, albeit all technologically inferior to what the U.S. and Britain possess.

Anger Over Sanctions

The stiffest troop resistance is expected to come from six Republican Guard divisions and the four elite brigades of the Special Republican Guards, which also would guard against civil unrest or coup attempts. The regular army is the worst equipped and in poor morale, Western analysts say. Iraq's small air force is not expected to be a factor.

If all else fails, some Western analysts believe that the Iraqi regime could use any chemical or biological weapons it managed to hide from arms inspectors or even the few dozen Scud missiles that it is believed to still possess against Israel or American troops in Kuwait. U.S.-led forces could be slowed by the mere threat of such attacks, analysts agree. Few Iraqis, even those privately critical of their leader, express faith in the Bush administration's assurances that the U.S. aims are only to remove Hussein's regime from power, eliminate its alleged weapons of mass destruction and bring democracy and human rights to this nation.

Rather, still bitter over a dozen years of sanctions, they tend to share the view widespread among Arabs that this would be an avoidable war instigated for America's own interests, with the real goals of curtailing their country's sovereignty, weakening Arab opposition to Israel and controlling the region's oil wealth.

"There is only one reason they are coming, and it is in the ground," a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Such views are one reason why Iraqis feel that they are in the right and are ready to fight, argues Mohammed Mudheffar Adhami, chairman of political science at Baghdad University, who believes that Iraq might prevail in spite of significant disadvantages.

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