Monday, September 30, 2002

House to House Fighting

The Iraqis are apparently preparing a last ditch defense of Baghdad that will be both their first and last line of defense. The possibility of another Berlin 1945, when the Russians endured horrible casualties, has been raised as a reason for caution.

Can the Iraqis pull off such a defense?

I doubt it.

First of all, the defense of Berlin was so bloody because the Soviets were completely uninterested in minimizing casualties—their own or German. Second, the Germans knew that there would be no quarter granted for surrendering. They were dead and the only thing they could do was exact a price. It was not until 1955 that German POWs were released by the Soviets to go home. Third, the Soviets were in a hurry, fearing the Allies might take the city first. German soldiers surrendered to the Western allies because they knew that surrendering meant they would live.

Would these factors be duplicated in an American assault on Baghdad?

I doubt it. First, we are not the Soviets (nor are the Iraqis even remotely as effective as the Germans) and this is not 1945. We will bring technology and concern that were not even remotely present in the Soviet attackers. Second, although our reputation for high concern for collateral damage may harm our credibility in peacetime, once we are fighting, people will know that surrendering to us means life—not death. We have the advantage of 1991 to bolster this belief. Iraqis who surrendered lived and went home soon after the war ended. The Iraqis have no incentive to fight to the death. Third, if we have to we can take our time taking Baghdad if the Iraqis do make a stand. We are not in a race with anybody else. Unless the Iraqis hope the French will take their surrender they aren’t going to be dealing with anybody but us.

Finally, the Iraqi record is not good. There was only one case in at least recent history where the Iraqis prepared to defend a city even if surrounded. After capturing Iran’s Khorramshahr at great cost in 1980, the Iraqis prepared to hold it in the face of Iran’s furious counter-offensive in 1982 that drove the Iraqis from their 1980 conquests. The Iraqis built fortifications and prepared to defend the city with three divisions—a quarter of their army then. When the Iranians struck, the Iraqis broke and ran rather than try to defend the city.

We must make sure the Iraqis know that the price of resistance is far higher than the price of surrendering. If the Iraqis make the suburbs of Baghdad their first line of defense, we’ve won the war. Our superiority is so great that the Iraqis appear to have assumed we will make it to Baghdad so they might as well not lose their army trying to stop us.

Big mistake. We’ll make it to Baghdad. Their regular army will defect. And their last die-hards will see they have no place to go. I don’t think we face extensive and costly house-to-house fighting. We might. I just doubt it. And if the Tikriti loyalists do resist, send in the defectors to fight. In a supporting role, we’ll suffer far fewer casualties and fulfill the wish of so many who oppose our invasion—we’ll be letting the Iraqis take care of the problem.