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WAR WITH IRAQ / AIR AND GROUND | Military Analysis

Quick Knockout or Street Fight?

IRAQ: Hussein hopes to draw the U.S. into urban combat in the capital and play to world opinion.

March 28, 2003|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Saddam Hussein hopes to turn the battle for Baghdad into a Mesopotamian version of Stalingrad.

The Iraqi president is an admirer of Josef Stalin. He has modeled his ruthless rule and cult of personality on the Soviet leader. As the U.S.-led invasion force stretches its supply lines to reach Baghdad, military analysts and Iraq experts say Hussein's most loyal, best-equipped troops are digging in to try to inflict the kind of carnage that stopped Adolf Hitler at the Volga River in 1943.

A first and crucial test is likely to come near the cities of Karbala and Al Kut along a so-called "red line" that forms a ring south of Baghdad, where U.S. troops are massing now. If Hussein can avoid a military collapse there that would drag down his entire regime, analysts expect him to regroup his forces for street-to-street combat in the capital. And then, he appears to be counting on the modern weapons of media and world politics for his survival.

The Iraqi regime has spent years preparing for this showdown. Its strategists have researched U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia. Experts say videotapes of the movie "Black Hawk Down," which recounts the frenzied combat in Mogadishu in 1993, circulated among military men in Baghdad in recent months.

"People say to me you are not the Vietnamese, you have no jungles and swamps to hide in," said Tarik Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister, in an interview published recently by the International Institute for Strategic Studies here. "I reply, 'Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings be our jungles.' "

In tactics, technology and firepower, the force closing in on Baghdad is far superior to the U.S. military that fought in Vietnam, or the German army that slowly froze, starved and ran out of ammunition in the snow and rubble of Stalingrad. But Hussein's strategy relies as much on psychology as it does on armament.

The failure of the first Bush administration to finish him off in the 1991 Persian Gulf War convinced Hussein that his foes do not have the stomach for an ugly fight. Emboldened by the performance of his fighters in southern Iraq, he thinks he could negotiate his survival if his capital resists a siege for as little as a month to six weeks, said Toby Dodge, a professor at University of Warwick in Coventry.

Iraqi leaders hope gruesome televised images of civilian and military casualties will cause an uproar that forces the Anglo-American coalition to back down, analysts said. As far-fetched as that may seem to outsiders, what counts is that Hussein's regime takes the scenario seriously.

"I think that's crazy, but they believe it to their bootstraps," said Dodge, one of Britain's leading scholars on Iraq. "And with what's happened in the south, I think the Iraqi leaders have surprised themselves. If the Americans are getting that much flak from [Shiite] conscripts, it will be a hell of a fight when they get to the Republican Guard."

As the two sides prepare for heavy combat in and around Baghdad, experts debate two crucial issues. One is the ability of well-paid, highly motivated troops including the Republican Guard, a force of an estimated 70,000 soldiers and 700 T-72 tanks. The other is Iraq's possible use of chemical or biological weapons.

Although some Republican Guard commanders resent Hussein, they are also proudly professional and despise Americans. Past coup attempts by some units have caused the wary Hussein to station them along the "red line" outside of Baghdad. Experts expect this defensive outer ring of forces to engage U.S. forces near key points such as Al Kut, Karbala and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

During the first Gulf War, U.S. forces routed the Republican Guard, who were outgunned and tactically weak. But they also showed themselves to be disciplined and tenacious.

As U.S. forces bear down, the outer Republican Guard ring has two choices. It can attempt to hold its positions under a blistering onslaught. Or it can fall back toward the city proper, which is defended by the Special Republican Guard, a force that Hussein regards as staunchly loyal. Both tactics are risky.

Retreat could risk severed supply lines and confusion as the two Iraqi contingents meet, according to Michael Clark, director of the Center for Defense Studies at King's College in London.

"Once they start moving, they become more vulnerable," Clark said. "Even very well-disciplined armies have trouble merging together."

The next few days will be key, Clark said. If the Republican Guard can stop the Americans from punching a hole through their defenses, Iraq will win points in a propaganda battle focused on civilian deaths and, in some quarters, a perception that a brave underdog has stymied the most powerful military force in history.

On the other hand, if the attack rumbles forward with little difficulty, the military and political momentum will swing in the opposite direction.

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