The siege of Baghdad

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

in Doha

A FORTNIGHT after the United States started its war on Iraq, its forces were knocking at and peering through the gates of Baghdad. But, despite the fairly rapid advance towards the Iraqi capital, and the relentless military pressure, Baghdad's fall does not appear imminent.

In all probability, in approaching the environs of Baghdad and probing its defences, the invading armies have completed only the first phase of combat. The second, and definitely the most decisive phase of the war is only beginning to unfold. At a time when the contending parties have exploited the media as a channel to spread disinformation and wage psychological warfare, it is important to take a look at the facts.

First, Anglo-American forces have not been able to seize any major Iraqi town or city with ease. It is only after a prolonged siege and the possible assassination of its military commander Ali Hassan al-Majid that Basra has begun to feel the weight of British incursions. U.S. troops advancing towards Baghdad have not taken over any of the key cities along the Euphrates and the Tigris. These include Najaf and Karbala, which are internationally significant Shia spiritual strongholds situated along the Euphrates. Nasiriyah, north-west of Basra, has also not been fully taken. This ancient city has been the scene of bitter fighting, in which 20 U.S. troops have been killed in a single day and five others captured. The eastern advance of U.S. troops along the Tigris has not resulted in the fall of cities such as Al Amarah or Al Kut.

Contrary to popular perception, in the rush towards Baghdad, U.S. troops did not simply bypass the towns and cities on the way. Apprehending fidayeen attacks on the rear supply lines, U.S. military planners left behind a considerable number of troops to address that threat even while maintaining the advance. Raging battles between U.S. forces and fidayeen squads or a combination of irregular and regular troops continue. Street fighting in Karbala was intense on April 6, forcing the quick despatch of a unit of the U.S. 101 airborne division to that city.

Third, Iraq's Shia population, which is concentrated in cities such as Basra, Najaf and Karbala, has not revolted against the regime of President Saddam Hussein. For years, it was said that the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein was systematically suppressing Iraqi Shias and therefore no sooner did the war for a regime change begin, than a Shia revolt against Baghdad would materialise. Although there might be some truth in the allegation that in 1991 Iraqi Shias were victims of Saddam Hussein's wrath, so far a full-blown Shia rebellion has failed to surface. However, assuming that an internal revolt against Baghdad needed only an ignition, the Anglo-American intelligence agencies played the Shia card quite early. A week after the war began, Anglo-American forces reportedly pushed large numbers of pro-U.S. Shia fighters into Basra. A Shia militia, loyal to Majid Al Khoei, son of Shia spiritual leader Ayatollah Khoei, began to battle with the fidayeen squads inside the city. The Basra `uprising', which erupted on the sixth night of the war, was mainly the result of fighting between the ruling Baath Party's fidayeen forces and the Shia fighters of Majid Al Khoei. The fall of Basra, the U.S. forces hoped, would set a precedent that would encourage mass uprisings in the other Shia strongholds of Najaf and Karbala. Since 65 per cent of the Iraqi people are Shias, the U.S. sought to unhinge Saddam Hussein's grip on the majority population before the battle for Baghdad began. Basra was a test case to demonstrate whether hammering at Iraq's religious fault lines would lead to military success. However, by April 2, unable to stir the Shias against Saddam Hussein, the U.S. Central Command had backtracked. Now the attempt was at least to prevent the Shias from actively joining Saddam's camp. In his briefing on April 2, Vincent Brooks, the spokesperson of the U.S. Central Command drew the attention of the media to a statement allegedly made by Ayatollah Sistani, the Shia spiritual head in Najaf, that called upon Shias to stay neutral.

Fourth, despite reports that the U.S. forces, advancing remorselessly towards Baghdad, were routing the Iraqis, it seems probable that quite a few Iraqi fighters escaped destruction and managed to re-enter Baghdad to defend it. It was apparent from the outset that the Iraqi regime did not intend to spread its resources thin. Its strategy was to pull back forces and equipment from the peripheral areas and reposition them for Baghdad's defence. Early on in the war, Iraqi military planners began pulling back the elite Republican Guard from outlying areas and redeploying them in and around Baghdad to force the advancing U.S. forces into fighting street battles. The Al Nida division was positioned to defend Baghdad's eastern gates, while the Hamourabi division was deployed to block the western entrance.

With the northern front against Iraq not opening up because of Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. forces to transit its territory, the Iraqis decided to withdraw the Adnan division from the vicinity of Mosul. This formation has now been positioned north of Baghdad, around Saddam Hussein's stronghold of Tikrit.

Apart from some of these pre-positioned forces, Iraqi defences in Baghdad might have been strengthened by the elements of three Iraqi divisions - the Al Medina division, the Nebuchadnezzar division and the Baghdad division. These three formations had been sent out to check the U.S. advance towards Baghdad, along the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. In advancing towards Baghdad, two U.S. columns moved along the Tigris, while a third, led by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry and backed by troops belonging to the Third Infantry division, headed along the Euphrates. The shadowy presence of a fourth column, led by elements of the 101st Airborne division, further west of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, is being suspected.

The U.S. columns crossed the Tigris and the Euphrates at specific locations. Al Kut, where a large bridge is located on the Tigris, was initially bypassed by U.S. forces who crossed the river at An Numaniyah and Az Zubaydiyah, further north. The Euphrates was first breached at Nasiriyah and later at a location, probably north of Karbala. Reports from the battlefront indicate that Iraqi forces, except for the Al Medina division, evaded a direct confrontation with the advancing U.S. columns and consequently have survived in considerable numbers. Therefore, it is not inconceivable that some of these troops may have managed to stage a tactical retreat into Baghdad to "fight another day".

However, the U.S. side has been emphasising that many of the platoons of the Republican Guard have either "melted away" or simply fled and therefore should not be given undue importance while assessing the Iraqi potential to defend Baghdad.

What, therefore, are the tangible Anglo-American military successes? It is clear that the invading forces have managed to seize most of Iraq's southern oilfields, such as Rumaila, intact. The pipeline infrastructure, including pumping stations on the Faw Peninsula and the oil export terminal, have been secured. Anglo-American forces have also taken control of Iraq's main seaport of Umm Qasr. The H-2 and H-3 bases on Iraq's western front have been seized. The fact that the military dominates the western desert has minimised the threat to Israel from Iraqi missiles. Stretches of the western desert were called "Scud boxes" because they had become Iraqi staging posts from where 39 Scud missiles were launched on Israel during the first Gulf war. U.S. forces have also taken over some of the new airfields, such as the Talil airfield along the Euphrates in northwestern Iraq. The Iraqi bases can be used as springboards to push in more troops and supplies and conduct armed air sorties.

Notwithstanding these military successes, the U.S. war plan in Iraq suffers from a basic flaw. While its current strategy does allow it to dominate in terms of battle space, it cannot overwhelm the Iraqis. The problem boils down to numbers. Pinning its faith on psychological warfare, technology and commando operations, the U.S. has deployed its forces in insufficient numbers. The U.S. wanted to lend a "rolling start" to the war, which means undertaking a phased induction of forces instead of engaging in a full-scale military build-up prior to the war. Turkey's refusal to allow the U.S. Fourth Infantry division to use its territory for transit into northern Iraq reduced the size of the U.S. forces further. Iraqis exploited this weakness substantially by fielding fidayeen units, which launched a guerilla war, attacking the already stretched supply lines of the U.S. forces. The U.S. was left with no choice but to lock in a large part of its military to counter the fidayeen squads.

As they encircle Baghdad, it is estimated that the U.S. troops number around 30,000, a number hardly sufficient to overwhelm a city of five million people. Obviously, the U.S. does not have the "siege of Berlin" choice of 1945, when nearly 80,000 Soviet troops died after surrounding and then storming the German city. Neither does it have the "siege of Budapest" choice, where the Soviet army took over the city after pulverising the Hungarian capital with a heavy barrage of artillery. In the case of Baghdad, such tactics will lead to massive civilian casualties, which the U.S. can ill-afford. The ideal option would be to employ the "siege of Paris" tactics of 1944, when the then U.S. commander Dwight D. Eisenhower managed to seek the surrender of the local German military leadership after convincing it of the futility of resistance, through a show of force and successful psychological operations. Nearly six decades later, U.S. Central Command chief Tommy Franks appears to be emulating Eisenhower. But with the troops on the ground still short on supply, it remains to be seen whether an intense dose of psychological operations, backed by a show of strength, including commando raids on select high-profile targets, can force the Iraqi army into tame capitulation.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment