In murderous urban warfare, the rules are...

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Posted by Tony from ( on Thursday, March 27, 2003 at 1:03AM :

In murderous urban warfare, the rules are different
Alan Cowell The New York Times Thursday, March 27, 2003
LONDON Each battered high-rise becomes a sniper's lair, each deserted thoroughfare an ambush zone. In this kind of warfare, advances and retreats are measured in blocks or half-blocks, or even just houses.

In the calculations of battle, the shield of technology gives way to human failings and human skills - speed and deception, close knowledge of streets and alleys.

Since Stalingrad and Berlin in World War II, to the American assault on Hue in 1968 and on to the war zones of Beirut or Nablus, Belfast or Mogadishu, urban warfare has become a central part of the underdog's arsenal, a fight without scruples for the high ground of propaganda that exploits civilian losses and denies the intruder's superior might.

And, it is precisely that messy, manipulative and murderous kind of fighting between conventional forces and elusive defenders that could beckon American forces as they approach Baghdad, despite their much-publicized reluctance to engage in a close, urban brawl.

"The Iraqis will want to fight close and dirty, with Iraqi tanks darting in an out of garages and buildings; they will conduct small-scale offensive actions with dismounted soldiers supported by mortars," wrote General Wesley Clark, the American former commander who led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces during the Kosovo campaign.

"The fighting will be full of the tricks we have already seen and more: ambushes, fake surrenders, soldiers dressed as women, attacks on rear areas and command posts," he said in a newspaper article. "The Iraqis will be prepared to conduct high-risk missions of a kind we would not consider."

For all Western commanders in Iraq have expressed outrage at what they see as such dishonorable tactics, though, urban warfare has always set its own rules of guile and deceit from the use of a wooden horse to break the siege of Troy more than 3,100 years ago to modern times when war is broadcast live 24 hours a day.

And in this post Cold War era of asymmetric warfare - the fight between overwhelming conventional forces and zealous adversaries seeking the chinks in the hi-tech Western armor - the fight has come to mean a contest to disable the technology that enables American forces to contemplate killing without loss of their own.

That was evident enough in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 when sophisticated Black Hawk helicopter gunships were brought down by crude, shoulder-fired Soviet-era RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenades, a standard item in the kit of guerrilla armies around the globe along with AK-47 assault rifles, land mines and hand grenades.

The downing of the helicopters not only seemed a victory for the lightly equipped Somali street fighters, it also led to humiliating American casualties that hastened the U.S. withdrawal - just as images of wounded and slain U.S. Marines at Hue and other battle zones of the Tet offensive in Vietnam turned American opinion against the war. Those memories underscore the perils of street fighting that face allied troops in Iraq. And history offers little solace.

In recent decades, urban warfare has taken many forms, with many aims.

When battle-hardened Soviet troops pushed into Berlin in 1945 against the last feeble remnants of the Third Reich, lofting the Red Flag over the battered Reichstag, their intention was clearly conquest, not the liberation Washington says it seeks in Iraq.

In Beirut in the mid-1970s, by contrast, Muslim and Palestinian forces fought Christian militias across a line of faiths whose incongruous initial markers were luxury seafront hotels - the St. Georges and the Phoenicia, the Palm Beach and the Normandie, won and lost in room-to-room fighting.

The weapons were generally low-tech shoulder-fired anti-tank grenades, assault rifles and mortars, pickup-mounted machine guns that put a premium on stealth and mobility. But when American Marines intervened in Lebanon, an equally crude weapon, a suicide truck bomb, killed more than 230 of them in 1983.

In Berlin and Beirut, as in successive waves of Russian assaults on the Chechen capital, Grozny, the fighting reduced urban areas to rubble. But it is precisely the familiarity of the urban terrain to those who live there that enables them to use it to the advantages of ambushes, surprise attacks and rapid redeployment.

"Urban warfare usually benefits the defender," said Clifford Beal, the editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, a leading publication on military matters. Not only that, urban warfare "will negate the technological advantage of the coalition. The Iraqis will be jumping in and out of alleyways. It tends to become a low-tech, house-to-house situation and that kind of combat can become very costly for combatants and others."

A war depending on low technology and high numbers of combatants and casualties is precisely the opposite of what the modern American Army is trained to do. And even the British Army, with three decades of experience fighting the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, would not be familiar either with the Iraqi terrain in cities such as Basra or Baghdad or with the much greater firepower Iraqi troops could use in urban areas.

Indeed, said Tom Clonan, a military analyst in Dublin, a more likely comparison for allied troops in Iraq would be the humbling experience of Russian troops fighting Chechen separatist forces in Grozny. "There are striking similarities between Grozny and Baghdad," he said.

"For example, Saddam's Republican Guard, equipped with the same weaponry as Chechen separatists in Grozny, might well mimic their modus operandi in the streets of Baghdad." The "low-tech weapons would form a formidable arsenal in the narrow alleys and back streets of Iraq's capital," Clonan said.

Others draw comparisons with house-to-house fighting in Hue in 1968, which not only sent home bloody images of American casualties but also forced U.S. commanders to loosen the rules of engagement - in a way the Pentagon says it is seeking to avoid in the Iraq war.

That reflects the differences in the role of public opinion for defenders and attackers in any urban warfare in Iraq, where ruthless irregulars and ultra-loyal forces would have few qualms about civilian casualties or, indeed, using civilians as human shields. The United States and Britain face opinion at home that may prove fickle, constraining their ability to use massive force, military analysts said.

"The allies are fighting with kid gloves on, but it'll be very difficult to keep this clinical if urban warfare ensues," said Beal. "It can bog down large numbers of troops. This war is being fought on a clock. And the longer it goes on, the more carnage is seen, the more difficult it is for the Bush administration to continue."

-- Tony
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