The Goal Is Baghdad, but at What Cost?

March 25, 2003

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, March 24 — The way to Baghdad is through the Republican Guard. The United States Army and the Marine Corps are now moving up supplies and getting their forces into place to take the fight to Saddam Hussein’s most loyal units. According to the allied war plan, by the time the onslaught begins in earnest, the Iraqi troops will have been thoroughly pummeled from the air.

There is little doubt that the United States military has the skills, training and weapons to take the capital and dislodge the Hussein government. The questions are how long it will take, and what the cost will be in terms of casualties, both allied and Iraqi.

The Iraqis are trying to counter the allied strategy by carrying out guerrilla-style raids to disrupt the movement of troops and supplies and divert allied attention to threats in the rear. The advance on the Iraqi capital may also bring allied forces closer to the threat of chemical weapons, according to American officials. They are concerned that the Iraqis have drawn a red line around the approaches to the capital and that crossing it could prompt Mr. Hussein’s forces to fire artillery and missiles tipped with chemical or germ warheads.

Baghdad is what the United States military calls the center of gravity. It is the stronghold from which Mr. Hussein controls his forces, a bulls-eye for the American air war commanders and the final objective for American ground forces that have drawn up plans to fight their way to the gates of the capital, then conduct thrusts at power centers inside the city.

From the start, the campaign to take Baghdad was envisioned as a multifaceted effort.

It began with a cruise missile attack that was intended to kill Mr. Hussein. Government command centers and bunkers have been blasted with bombs and cruise missiles, attacks that can be expected to continue periodically.

For all the talk about waging a punishing air campaign, the United States has been holding back some punch. The Pentagon removed hundreds of strikes from its attack plan in an effort to limit civilian casualties and damage to civilian structures.

The calculation is that this approach will make it easier for American officials to receive public support and rebuild Iraq after Mr. Hussein is toppled. In contrast to the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Iraqi television is still on the air.

Should American air power destroy Mr. Hussein’s government — a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely — American ground forces would be rushed to Baghdad to fill the power vacuum.

Otherwise, the role of air power is to weaken the government’s command and control and knock out Iraqi air defenses, then provide United States ground commanders with air cover if American ground forces have to venture into the still-defended capital.

Airstrikes will also be directed against Republican Guard forces protecting the approaches to the city, including their command and control, artillery and tanks. The goal is to weaken the units and freeze the Republican Guard in place so they cannot drop back and prepare for urban warfare.

The land attack on Baghdad is still in its initial phases. The first step took place Sunday night when the 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment began to strike a brigade of the Medina.

To set the stage for the assault, the United States military hammered Iraqi radar and tried to suppress surface-to-air missiles. But the Iraqis had a low-tech solution: they deployed a large number of irregular fighters who were equipped with machine guns and small arms.

As the helicopters took off, they flew low off the ground to make themselves less inviting targets for surface-to-air missiles. But that made them vulnerable to the small-arms fire. Thirty of 32 Apache helicopters were struck by small-arms fire.

One helicopter went down, and its two-man crew was captured. The Army was so concerned that the Iraqis would get their hands on the technology that they fired two Atacms missiles today to destroy the helicopter. Because of bad weather after the action, the military had no report on whether they succeeded.

The Apaches destroyed only 10 to 15 Iraqi armored vehicles. American military commanders say they are rethinking their helicopter tactics as a result of the events of the past 24 hours.

The weather has also become at least a temporary ally of the Iraqis. American military officials are forecasting several days of cloudy weather with 10,000-foot ceilings and 30-knot winds that will create sandstorms. The bad weather will preclude helicopter attacks and make it more difficult for allied warplanes to attack the three Republican Guard divisions around Baghdad.

But the bad weather will not last forever, and American forces are using the time to get their forces into position and move up large amounts of fuel and supplies.

The marines, for example, are laying a long fuel pipeline in Iraqi territory. American forces are also trying to improve the security of their convoys by deploying more armed escorts on the ground and by helicopter in response to a wave of attacks by Iraqi fedayeen and other irregular forces.

During the stretch of bad weather, the Army hopes to keep the pressure on by firing Atacms surface-to-surface missiles. The weather will make it difficult for allied pilots to hit mobile targets, but the air war commanders could try to keep the heat on by dropping gravity bombs or cluster bombs.

When the moment comes to battle the Republican Guards full tilt, it will be through a combined arms attack involving artillery, close air support and tanks. Army and Marine forces will be involved.

After reaching the outskirts of the capital, American commanders envision a deliberate fight and say they are determined not to rush into the city.

Rather, their plan calls for patient reconnaissance to try to pinpoint the location of Mr. Hussein, his top deputies and the main defenders of his rule, including internal security organizations and elements of the Special Republican Guard. They are hoping that residents will provide the necessary intelligence.

The goal is to avoid house-to-house fighting that could result in large American and civilian casualties. Instead, allied commanders envision thrusts at crucial power centers. Army combat engineers might be at the front of a formation to destroy barricades and other obstacles. Tanks could follow, protected by light infantry to guard against attacks, rocket-propelled grenades and antitank weapons. The formations would also be protected by air power, including spotters that would call in airstrikes and Apache helicopters, which could fire Hellfire missiles.

“If there is to be a fight in and around Baghdad, we’re going to have to be very patient to establish the right conditions for us to engage in that fight,” Gen. William S. Wallace, the commander of the V Corps, said in a recent interview. “I think that means forming joint combined arms teams that include Air Force, Army aviation, light infantry, armored forces, engineer forces that together can go after a specific target, for a specific purpose.”

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