- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

A siege of Baghdad with Saddam Hussein in his last and deepest bunker, clutching his beloved chemical and biological weapons has been projected in the press as the likely conclusion of a potential U.S. invasion of Iraq. Such a siege would present the United States with difficult military requirements and potentially painful decisions. But, despite the daunting prospect of military operations in such a large urban area, there is nothing in such a siege that will necessarily present Saddam with new options or capabilities.
Since the last time a victorious army entered Baghdad the British in 1917 it has become a Third World conurbation, absorbing much of a growing population; interruptions of often-marginal food, water and sanitation may lead to a humanitarian crisis. Such a city could not only require a large garrison with its own supply requirements to even provide a defensive crust. Yet, it could absorb a large numbers of attacking troops, while leading to the increased likelihood of politically costly collateral damage and civilian casualties.
No one comes away happy from urban combat. For the United States, it evokes memories of the terrorist blow against the Marines (and their French allies) in Beirut in 1983, the fighting in Panama City in Operation Just Cause in 1990 that, despite careful planning, still inflicted heavy collateral damage on a friendly population, and the anti-terrorist operations in Mogadishu in 1993 that led to the bitter fighting seen in the movie "Black Hawk Down."
Nor is it just the United States that has seen the limitations of high-technology weapons in an urban environment. The Russian army's costly direct assault on the Chechen city of Grozny in 1995 underlined just how far the onetime superpower had slipped.
But the problems a U.S. force would face besieging Baghdad would actually pale before the dilemma of a besieged Saddam. He would be literally putting himself in the position of the bank robber taking hostages in this case the population and using them for negotiations. A besieged Baghdad could not long feed itself. It would therefore be up to the besiegers U.S. forces to decide what food is sent in and how. By concentrating his forces in Baghdad, Saddam would also be giving up many of the facilities that are the cause of the current crisis, those producing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. He would be able to pull some of these into a defensive perimeter, to be sure. But even a well-armed Saddam cannot prevent the United States from essentially treating a besieged Baghdad as an internment camp.
Saddam is not likely to be able to keep his forces however stretched exclusively on the perimeter to defend against U.S. ground pressure. His forces will also have to keep Saddam secure. They will be subject to firepower directed by a sophisticated array of U.S. intelligence, sensor and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. Moving units on interior lines to meet U.S. attacks will render them vulnerable to detection and engagement, while if they stay hidden they can be bypassed.
The potential for air and heliborne attacks to take advantage of any weakness detected in Iraqi defenses may provide an alternative to hard urban fighting, but the biggest (and best) alternative is to create an advance on Baghdad with such force and momentum that resistance is likely to be limited in size and scope. Hit Saddam fast and hard enough and he may not be able to stage-manage any famous last stands.
If Saddam holds out in Baghdad, the United States would have to take the initiative in its own form of asymmetric warfare; starting the work of creating a post-Saddam Iraq in the rest of Iraq. Psychological operations and civil affairs capabilities are likely to prove vital to convert the battlefield victories of combat arms units into an effective transition away from a terroristic dictatorship.
A siege of Baghdad could potentially give many things to Saddam. It could give him the chance to go out in a blaze of firepower (and take many Iraqis with him). It would give him the chance to inflict some painful losses and embarrassing press coverage on U.S. attackers. What it is unlikely to give him is victory. Unlike the PLO in Beirut in 1982, the international community will not ensure that Saddam gets to fight another day.
The United States would likely find a siege of Baghdad a military challenge, but through its own capabilities could prevent Saddam from achieving what would surely be his final policy goals.

David Isby is a Washington-based national security consultant and author.

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