From The Manchester Times (Tennessee)
Thursday 13 March, 2003
Thousands Of U.S. fatalities expected in Iraq
By: Philip Knight March 12, 2003
Experts say likelihood of urban combat and exposure to WMD will result in "many thousands" of U.S. military dead.
Low casualty rates in the Gulf War, Kosovo and Afghanistan have led Americans to expect more of the same in Iraq.
Yet military experts are quietly warning that the impending war will likely yield a high U.S. death toll.
Analysts suggest that the Bush administration is keeping silent on the issue of casualties for fear of weakening public support for the war.
"I don't think the American public is prepared for the kinds of casualties that might occur in Iraq," said NBC military analyst Col. Jack Jacobs (ret.).
A consensus appears to be emerging that U.S. deaths during an operation in Iraq will likely run into the thousands.
The two concerns most often cited to account for significant U.S. fatality rates are the likelihood of urban combat and of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical and biological weapons.
"If you want to get a regime to change, you have to go to Baghdad and the casualties are going to be great" said P. Terrence Hopmann, director of the Watson Institute's Global Security Program.
One senior military official confided, "if we have to fight a pitched battle in Baghdad, it means we screwed up somewhere along the way."
Yet the latest intelligence seems to indicate that this nightmare scenario is the one U.S. troops will be encountering.
Hussein is reportedly transforming Baghdad into an "Alamo-like" last stand, and guns and rocket propelled grenades are being issued to the population.
U.S. intelligence has detected a substantial concentration of forces around Baghdad "with the deliberate intention of creating an urban combat environment," according to a Pentagon official.
Four of Iraq's six Republican Guard divisions are now concentrated in Baghdad.
General Joseph Hoar, the former commander in chief of the military's central command, remarked "all our advantages of command and control, technology, mobility, all of those things are in part given up [in cities]."
The most comparable example of a modern urban war is the Russian offensive against Grozny. In 1994, 1,200 poorly-equipped Chechen rebels held the city against a Russian army of 30,000, resulting in many thousands of Russian dead.
Whereas Grozny was comprised of a few hundred thousand people, Baghdad is a city of 5 million.
The administration's expectation of low casualty figures is largely based on the hope that Hussein's government will quickly implode in the face of a U.S. attack.
"The secret within the not-so-secret plan is that the top decision-makers are hoping that Hussein's regime will collapse," writes The Washington Post's Ralph Peters. "But wise soldiers don't go to war with hope as their primary weapon" (11/15/02).
"It is always possible that the Iraqi military will refuse to fight for Hussein," notes Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down, "but this is wishful thinking . . . It is far more likely that they will fight, and tenaciously" (Los Angeles Times, 8/30/02).
The complex web of tribal relationships and loyalties hold the key to understanding the resistance U.S. troops are likely to encounter in Iraq.
Unlike most of the Shia or Kurdish conscripts who deserted or surrendered during the Gulf War, the Republican Guard, as well as most of Baghdad's population, is comprised of Hussein's own Sunni Arab tribe -- which by all accounts remains fiercely loyal to his regime.
Military analyst Gwynne Dyer noted that the only reason Hussein survived the Shia and Kurdish revolts after the Gulf War is because the Sunnis "closed ranks around Saddam Hussein and fought to defend his regime."
More troublingly, according to London's Observer, the Pentagon believes that "they will have 48 hours to find and kill or capture Saddam before he tries to deploy any nuclear, biological or major conventional weapons he may have" (7/14/02). Intelligence sources have already intercepted Iraqi communications authorizing field commanders to use weapons of mass destruction.
While some analysts have cited less than a thousand U.S. combat fatalities, an emerging consensus of military experts appear to be warning of substantially higher casualty rates given the likelihood of urban combat and troop exposure to chemical or biological toxins.
The National Security Advisor report to the president advised "if Saddam Hussein retaliates conventionally, estimates of U.S. casualties range from the dozens to tens of thousands."
According to his discussions with a number of military experts, former Senator Gary Hart warned that if the Iraqis mount a resistance in the major cities, American casualties could easily reach 50,000 to 100,000.
Military analysts such as Col. Jack Jacobs (ret.) warn of the potentiality of casualties in the "many, many thousands, depending upon what kind of war we fight and what kind of weapons are unleashed on our soldiers."
Likewise, Michael O'Hanlan, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, estimated that "the United States could possibly lose as many as 5,000 troops if the Republican Guard fights as hard and as effectively as its size and weaponry would plausibly allow."
Philip Knight is a foreign news analyst and columnist with Knight Syndicate.com based in New York City.
©Manchester Times 2003