TCS Daily


The Ugly Time

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - April 3, 2003 12:00 AM

It is firepower, and firepower that arrives at the right time and place, that counts in modern war.

- B.H. Liddell Hart, Thoughts on War, 1944


The pursuit of victory without slaughter is likely to lead to slaughter without victory.

- The Duke of Marlborough, 1650-1722


Let's pay tribute to the bravery of some of Iraq's fighting men. Whether out of fear, fanaticism, or the impulse to defend their homeland, some of them have gone to their deaths fighting - futilely - against American and British forces. They have charged M-1 Abrams tanks with machineguns bolted to motorcycles and pickup trucks and they have paid with their lives.

But many thousands more of them have simply been killed in action. Bravery or the lack of it was not part of the equation. These soldiers were in the wrong place at the wrong time, when they encountered the awesome firepower of Coalition troops.

You can believe the modest figures you have seen in the press if you wish, but when this is over it will be abundantly apparent that this firepower - unprecedented in military history - has caused the slaughter (there is really no other word for it) of tens of thousands of Iraqi troops. The battlefields in a wide radius around Baghdad are littered with the blackened hulks of tanks, armored personnel carriers, fuel trucks, ammo trucks and commandeered civilian vehicles. And in and around these shattered vehicles lie the corpses. Troops of the 3rd Infantry Division report "truckloads" of bodies and body parts.

What makes this slaughter all the more acute is the fact that there does not appear to be a coherent defense plan on the part of the Iraqi forces. Or if there is one, it is not working. "Classic" Iraqi brigade defense formations (a triangle with tanks in the center and one flat side facing the enemy) have been overrun, sidestepped or utterly destroyed. Early this morning (Thursday) in Doha, Qatar, Col. Tom Bright, the U.S. Marine chief in the Joint Operations Center, said simply "The enemy has been unable to stop us."

This does not mean the fighting has not been fierce. We lost a Blackhawk helicopter during the night apparently from a hail of small arms fire (7 dead, 4 wounded but rescued). But in the hours preceding that incident, two Iraqi Republican Guards divisions - the Baghdad (infantry) and the Medina (armor) basically ceased to exist as fighting forces. They were cut to pieces, suffering thousands of casualties. By this morning some elements of the 3rd Infantry were within six miles of Baghdad International Airport.

Some see in all this a clever strategy within a strategy. Iraqi forces are "melting away" to fight another battle, the "unconventional" battle in which they will draw American forces into a hellish "quagmire" of snipers, terror bombings and house-to-house fighting. The specter of Stalingrad has been raised.

Urban warfare theoretically gives Iraqi "irregulars" some advantages. Small arms fire has generally been useless in impeding Coalition forces, but in a street-by-street, building-by-building fighting scenario machine guns, assault rifles and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades) would play a more significant role. There has been talk that Saif Al-Adel, an Egyptian who is now "military commander" of the worldwide Al-Qaeda terror network, has been providing the Iraqis with advice on guerrilla warfare.

But all historical, and even romantic notions of urban warfare by inspired irregulars need to be set aside this time. This will not be Mogadishu (remember when Defense Secretary Les Aspin would not allow any U.S. armor in to support American forces?). This will not be Grozny, or Chechnya, or the Intifada.

Any Iraqis fighting as "SIAFs" (small independent action forces) will be subjected to withering counterforce. They will face the highly articulated use of artillery and air strikes. They will encounter the best armor in the world with protective screens of infantry and helicopters to obviate the effectiveness of close in rear attacks on our tanks. They will be dealing with U.S. and British troops and Special Forces wearing body armor, who are highly skilled in force protection and able, even eager, to fight at night.

These troops will, in effect, be able to see around corners. They will have a constant picture of the battlefield. Interpretation of real time overhead intelligence in a maze of streets and buildings is definitely more challenging than in open country, but American forces have been training for just such exigencies. And there is another factor: A stand in Baghdad presupposes a populace united behind their leadership - something that appears less and less likely.

As the noose tightens around a missing, possibly dead or incapacitated Saddam and his Baath Party henchmen, those forces that choose to fight for them will find themselves cut off from ammunition and supplies. They will be subjected to sudden bombing attacks. They will find themselves suddenly enveloped by Special Forces dropping into specific buildings and strong points in the city.

Iraqi defenders will slowly be denied ground, buildings, and bunkers. Their ability to terrorize the populace will dwindle as their ability to exercise control over it diminishes block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

If this is the fight the defenders of this corrupt regime choose, then let the ugly time begin. It could be bloody, tedious and long. But there are growing signs that there may well be a stunning collapse. There is every possibility that the "Battle of Baghdad" will end not with a bang but a whimper.

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