Will Baghdad Fight to the End?

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Posted by Tony from 69-pool1.ras11.calan-e.alerondial.net ( on Thursday, March 27, 2003 at 1:36AM :

Will Baghdad Fight to the End?

ith Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard dug in on the outskirts of Baghdad and thousands of his most loyal defenders no doubt armed and waiting in the city's neighborhoods, he might be on the verge of delivering the "mother of all battles" he promised 12 years ago.

He has ceded the majority of his country to the rapidly moving American and British forces, but has left pockets of determined loyalists in cities large and small. These troops, many dressed in civilian clothing, will shoot at coalition forces from densely populated areas, daring return fire that might kill the very Iraqis whom President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain hope to liberate.

It is a strategy both cunning and cruel, and it may work. The outcome will depend in large part on the people of Baghdad, each of whom has a decision to make. What they decide could mean either a quick defeat of the regime or a protracted mess that would amount at best to a Pyrrhic victory for allied troops.

Saddam Hussein is betting that his people will rally around his crack troops. The allies are betting they will betray the dictator and flush out his enforcers. I'm afraid the odds at this point favor Saddam Hussein. Even those Iraqis eager to turn against the regime are still caught between the guns, and won't dare make a move until they are sure one side has the upper hand. Neighborhood by neighborhood, they will have to decide when it is safe to make their move.

If Saddam Hussein wins his bet, then coalition forces could face fighting reminiscent of the 1993 battle of Mogadishu. There would be important differences, of course. The 150 American troops trapped in the streets of Mogadishu were members of a light infantry unit cut off from backup or supply, without armor, dependent on a small number of helicopters for air support. Allied troops in Baghdad would number in the tens of thousands, with full armor and air support, and, as soon as the coalition manages to buttress its overextended supply line, a huge support system.

But no matter what kind of power can be rolled into Baghdad, if it faces a hostile population, as our troops did in Mogadishu, the scene could turn into a nightmare. Soldiers would be moving in a 360-degree battlefield with obstructed sight lines and impaired radio communications, trying to pick out targets from a civilian population determined to hide, supply and shield the enemy, unable to attack Iraqi firing positions without killing civilians. Even in victory such a battle would outrage the Arab world and fulfill the fears of the war's critics.

But why would the citizens of Baghdad rally around such a tyrannical regime? After all, Saddam Hussein has turned what was once one of the most prosperous and modern of Arab nations into a destitute state. His terrorist apparatus, modeled on Stalin's, has tortured, imprisoned and killed hundreds of thousands.

The problem is that each war develops an interior logic. Immediate traumas supersede the larger context, just as the fog of war plays havoc with generals' plans. Allied military commanders have wisely waged a careful air campaign, leaving most of the city's nongovernment buildings undamaged and keeping civilian casualties low. But every death and wounding — of a child, a sister, a father, a neighbor — no matter how unintentional, creates passionate new enemies whose anger eclipses politics.

And even Iraqis who despise Saddam Hussein can be expected to recoil from a foreign invasion, which wounds national pride. There are reports of Iraqi expatriates who fled the regime now returning to fight for their country. For Iraqis who distrust the United States, it will be a choice between their own local devil and the Great Satan of the world. And Iraqis get their information from the propaganda ministries, which amplify the grief and play upon nationalistic sympathies.

Much of this happened in Somalia. When American forces landed in 1992 to enforce the United Nations humanitarian effort, many were greeted with smiles and gifts from the Somali people. Mohammed Farah Aidid, the most powerful of Mogadishu's warlords, was not a popular figure, even within his own clan.

But then the United Nations decided to pursue him after his forces began attacking and killing peacekeepers. Clumsy military attempts to capture Mr. Aidid in the summer of 1993 left scores of Somalis dead or wounded and destroyed property. The people of the city quickly soured on their Western saviors, and the warlord's repeated escapes transformed him into a local hero, the sly Somali David tilting with Goliath. By the time Task Force Ranger arrived in August to apply more skillful tactics to the search for Mr. Aidid, thousands of local citizens were ready to fight in the streets to protect him. The result was the debacle that left 18 Americans dead and ended the humanitarian operation.

I suspect the coalition plan assumed that images of jubilant liberated Iraqis from southern cities, awash in humanitarian aid, would help sway the hearts and minds of Baghdad. So far that hasn't happened, either because the Iraqi people are less enthralled by this invasion than its planners hoped, or because Saddam Hussein's enforcers have managed to keep the population in line. There was hopeful news of popular uprisings in Basra, but it was not clear if they were widespread. If there are such happy scenes to report, then it is time to shut down Baghdad's propaganda machine and give Iraqis a full range of independent reporting about the war.

In the Battle of Baghdad, information will be as important as guns and bombs. But only if the truth is what we hope it will be.

Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," is national correspondent for The Atlantic.

-- Tony
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