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Wars Take Some Nasty Turns on City Streets

March 30, 2003|Aaron Zitner, Elizabeth Shogren and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — If American and British forces move into the streets of Baghdad, they may face a form of battle that armies have dreaded for centuries: Of all the places to fight, a city is one of the most dangerous.

"If troops are attacking cities, their strength will be exhausted," the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote about 2,500 years ago. "The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative."

In urban areas, buildings obscure sight lines. Curtained windows hide sniper nests. Alleyways present a confusing maze to outsiders but give cover to hometown fighters for hit-and-run strikes. It can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish civilians from enemy combatants.

And from the Russians in Chechnya to the Israelis in the West Bank and U.S. forces at Hue in Vietnam, new generations of soldiers have learned that cities can be bewildering battlefields.

"It's the hardest fight of all," said Douglas V. Johnson II, research professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. "The urban fight costs you more casualties than anything else."

If American and British forces enter Baghdad for a strike at the heart of Saddam Hussein's power, they hope to have already eased their entry by crushing Republican Guard troops outside the Iraqi capital, which in turn might prompt a military collapse. American forces have also improved their training, tactics and equipment for urban warfare in recent years, for example, carrying tougher body armor, more-accurate rifles and better radios that help squads work together.

Still, experts have long worried that a battle for Baghdad could produce a bloodbath and a public relations disaster.

Combat in Baghdad could be a "nightmare scenario," retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, a former chief of the U.S. Central Command, said in testimony before a Senate committee in September. "In urban warfare, you could run through battalions a day at a time ... that are just combat-ineffective because of casualties. This is very slow going."

Baghdad, with about 5 million residents, is free of some of the toughest hazards of urban warfare. A sprawling city of low buildings, it lacks the "urban canyons" of adjacent skyscrapers that can become prime ambush zones for invading forces. Broad boulevards provide handy routes to the city center.

But its huge dimensions could make it a tough city to hold, said Joseph Wilson IV, who was chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad from 1988 to 1991.

"Baghdad is roughly the area of Los Angeles," Wilson said. "It is so widespread that it would be hard to police all the pockets of potential resistance. It's going to be a difficult city to occupy if there is any resistance at all."

Wilson said one key city feature -- the Tigris River -- could favor the Americans and British. "It meanders through the city and makes a big U-turn right in the middle," he said. "When the bridges go, getting from one side of the city to the other becomes a problem, but we, being more mobile, will not be as troubled as the Iraqi defenders."

Military officials say that in the first stage of a U.S.-led attack on Baghdad, a contingent of combat engineers would be sent in, supported by infantry, to clear away any roadblocks that might bar the intended path through the city.

Next, teams of tanks and troops on foot would move together through the city, with attack helicopters providing supporting machine gun and missile fire.

The tanks would protect the foot soldiers by destroying any hidden fighters who tried to pin troops down with heavy fire. The infantry would support the tanks by rooting out hidden adversaries who might be armed with antitank missiles.

U.S. commanders say they want to avoid heavy building-to-building fighting. They plan to try to knock out the regime's key assets -- headquarters, communications centers and supply and ammunition depots -- ahead of time.

Still, for many troops, an urban fight would mean moving by foot through hostile streets, much like city battles of decades ago.

"What it still comes down to is people with their nerves at absolute fever pitch and fear in every pore of their body, pressing forward and hoping that there isn't anybody around the next corner -- or, if there is, that they can fire before the other guy can," Johnson said.

A Walk Like No Other

Troops who have walked through foreign streets and alleys in a combat zone say their senses went on high alert, tuned for signals that might come from anywhere: above, behind or below. At the same time, some say, they tried to drain themselves of humanity so that they could react without emotion, relying purely on their training.

In 1993, Army Rangers and Delta Force troops had moved into Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, to try to capture lieutenants of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. But when two U.S. helicopters were downed in the process, the soldiers had to find and rescue their colleagues amid harassment from angry crowds armed with automatic weapons and grenades.

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