After many months preparations, not wanting to 'provoke' an Iraqi attack too soon, the US is now getting down to the serious business of preparing to occupy Iraq come what may -
A very public wargame
As the military build-up continues in the Gulf, Julian Borger in Washington sees US forces preparing for house to house combat
Wednesday November 27, 2002
After 10 months of secrecy and denial, US military preparations for the looming conflict with Iraq have abruptly been turned into well-catered press events over the last few days. Clearly, the message has changed.
American journalists have been invited into the vast tented camps run by US forces in Kuwait's western desert, concentrated along the Iraqi border. All together, some 12,000 troops have taken over an entire quarter of Kuwaiti territory, which is now off-limits to civilians.
US television crews have been asked aboard the warships cruising in the Persian Gulf, where a fearsome armada including four or five aircraft carriers will have gathered by the end of December. Journalists have even been permitted to fly in planes patrolling the skies of northern and southern Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana last week, a group of more than a dozen foreign journalists - including a crew from the Arabic language television station, al-Jazeera - were allowed to visit the Fort Polk urban training centre to watch the 101st Airborne, the 'Screaming Eagles', practise house to house combat.
Someone somewhere in the Pentagon has decided we should be allowed to see everything.
The message from Fort Polk was obvious enough. Iraqi officials have hinted to journalists visiting Baghdad that the crack troops of the Special Republican Guard would not make the Iraqi army's mistake of 11 years ago, standing in wait for the American offensive in the desert and making an easy target for the US air force. Instead they suggested the diehard troops would gather in cities, among civilians, and prepare for death and glory in a bloody last stand, possibly bolstered by chemical or biological weapons.
It is no coincidence then, that the 101st Airborne Division were put on display bursting through doors and climbing through windows. They were making the point that the US will not be afraid to pursue Saddam Hussein into the labyrinth of city streets in Baghdad or Tikrit, the dictator's home town.
It was certainly an impressive show. For much of the night of the war game, we watched events unfold in a hi-tech command centre on an array of flat screens showing thermal images of the division's 3rd Brigade closing in on the mock-up town, which went by the distinctly un-Iraqi name of Shughart Gordon.
Towards daybreak, we walked outside and saw the small imaginary settlement being stormed. Its small but ferocious defence force of some 70 US paratroopers acting the part of generic "bad guys", was overcome and rooted out of the cellars and attics of the town. A large painted slogan nearby boasted that Fort Polk was "Forging the Warrior Spirit".
Watching the war game reach its dawn climax, I could not help thinking about the elaborate charade put on for the press a few months before the Gulf war, when the marines staged extensive rehearsals for a coastal assault on the Iraqi forces. Of course, there was never going to be a seaborne attack, and the media event was all part of the Pentagon's programme of psychological operations.
While it is clear the US readiness to fight at close quarters in city streets is being improved, it is still a safe bet that the administration would like to avoid urban warfare if at all possible. The technological superiority of US military muscle, particularly its air power, is enormously reduced in a cramped urban setting, where even "smart bombs" risk killing countless civilians. Meanwhile the defenders' "home advantage" increases tenfold in the twists and turns of city streets.
No official casualty figures were released after the Fort Polk exercises we watched, but it was clear that the Screaming Eagles had been seriously depleted by snipers.
One of their huge M1-A1 Abrams tanks was brought to a halt at the town entrance by a roll of barbed wire snarled in its tracks. The men of the 3rd Battalion made the mistake of clearing a house, but then leaving it empty while they moved on to another, permitting the defending troops to creep back into the first. Partly for that reason, it took the 101st Airborne until well into the morning to finish the job, despite the fact that they had eight times as many men, as well as night goggles and bags of equipment not available to the other side.
As part of the exercise, the US troops were attacked with chemical weapons on three occasions as they prepared for the assault, and some scouts donned chemical and biological protection suits in the final onslaught on the town. But it was assumed that the defenders would not resort to such desperate and ultimately suicidal measures, even during their last stand - an assumption which may not hold in the final days of Saddam's Iraq.
The truth is that urban warfare is one of the US military's worst nightmares and past failures continue to haunt the force. The 101st Airborne itself suffered horrendous casualties in its advance across the towns of northern France in 1944. Within living memory, every US soldier has seen videos of what happened when US special forces and Rangers went into Mogadishu in 1993. The ersatz town of Shughart Gordon is named after two of the 18 dead.
The Pentagon is currently thinking of ways to avoid a repetition of Mogadishu on a far bloodier scale. Its emerging urban warfare doctrine, not on show for the press in Louisiana, reportedly involves sealing off towns held by the enemy and crippling their will to resist by lightning strikes against a few selected command posts, with the help of precision air strikes and Predator drone aircraft armed with hellfire missiles. The hope is that the cities will crack one by one before large numbers of US troops have to be sent in.
The same is true for US military strategy in general. There are now 50,000 US troops in the Gulf region and equipment for at least twice as many. The build-up is slow and deliberate and designed to show that Washington, while not hell-bent on war, is ready for one.
Meanwhile, the troops provide an extra edge to the UN weapons inspections, now beginning in earnest, and a mark of serious intent which the administration believes will turn the tide in other Arab regimes who are reluctant to give their support for fear of another botched job.
The gathering US forces are also meant to be an inspiration to Saddam's opponents inside Iraq, and perhaps inside the regime, who will only make their move once they are convinced the dictator is doomed.
But if there is no coup, and the inspectors find nothing, the Bush team will face a serious challenge. It believes that US credibility depends on its willingness to deliver on its threats. It will not march its men to the top of the hill and march them down again. In that sense, at least, Washington is already committed to a conflict.