Training for urban combat in Iraq

F By Vernon Loeb

fORT POLK, La. – Just seven months ago, Capt. Glenn Kozelka and his men from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division fought al-Qaida terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan. But last week, as he commanded a furious mock assault on the U.S. military’s most sophisticated urban training ground, he began to understand why Army doctrine describes city fighting as “primordial combat.”

He had lost an entire squad to mortar fire, a sniper atop an adjacent building was picking off his soldiers in the street one by one, and a rocket-propelled grenade had just slammed into the next room, killing or wounding everyone inside.

“We call it three-dimensional warfare,” Kozelka said early one morning. “You can be shot from all around.”

War planners at the Pentagon understand this geometry only too well: They foresee a battle for Baghdad, a sprawling city of 5 million people, as one of the most difficult and unsettling aspects of any invasion of Iraq. The last thing they want is to mount a full, frontal assault on the city because of the likelihood of high casualties, both military and civilian, and the demands it would make on already strained manpower.

Lt. Gen. Edwin P. Smith, in last month’s issue of Army magazine, called urban warfare “the great equalizer.” The U.S. military is trying to minimize that equalizing effect, both in its planning and its training.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Oct.1 directed Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to conduct “a top down national review and theater review of assets involving urban warfare.” Two weeks ago, retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson, a Pentagon contractor, briefed Rumsfeld’s aides on the results of a two-year urban warfare analysis and recommended that 36 infantry battalions – about 18,000 troops, or roughly half the Army’s infantry force – receive intensive training in urban operations right up until the time they deploy to the Persian Gulf.

All Army and Marine infantry have routinely been given training in urban warfare, but recently that training, such as the exercise Kozelka and his troops were on, has increased in intensity and focus, with an eye toward a conflict in Iraq.

Recent experimentation by the Marine Corps has shown that battlefield casualties exceed 30 percent in simulated urban operations involving troops who receive, on average, only about two weeks of urban combat training per year, said retired Marine Col. Randy Gangle, an official at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.

Senior Iraqi officials have already said they would try to lure U.S. forces into Baghdad, acknowledging that the Persian Gulf War in 1991 taught them the folly of fighting in the desert against superior American armor and air power. Bluffing or not, the Iraqis understand that the U.S. military’s overwhelming technological advantages are to some extent nullified in cities, where buildings shelter enemy forces from reconnaissance aircraft and satellites and the presence of civilians makes the use of even the smartest bombs infinitely more difficult.

The big unknown confronting senior defense officials is whether the Iraqi military would fight to save President Saddam Hussein – and, if it did, whether it would have the discipline and leadership to fall back into the Iraqi capital and extract a heavy price from the U.S. invaders, as Chechen rebels did when Russian forces invaded Grozny in 1994.

Military analysts inside and outside the Pentagon do not think that Iraq’s military can or will put up much of a fight, but even a limited number of engagements, most likely against Hussein’s Special Republican Guard, could be nasty affairs.

The Army’s urban warfare training manual quotes an Israeli officer in stark terms: “Every room is a new battle. … Avoid cities if you can. If you can’t, avoid enemy areas. If you can’t do that, avoid entering buildings.”

In addition to posing the risk of casualties, urban operations also require extremely large numbers of troops. One recent Marine scenario that used Chicago as a battle template determined that it would take the entire Marine Corps to clear and hold the city. Far from that kind of block-to-block engagement, Pentagon strategists envision cordoning off Baghdad, providing escape routes for civilians and surrendering military personnel, and striking critical facilities whose loss, over time, should make the city, and Hussein’s government, fall.