US troops gear up for urban battles

The American military may have to fight the Iraq war in the city streets. DERWIN PEREIRA, who is in Kuwait City, reports on how they are gearing up for urban warfare in scenes that recall the movie Black Hawk Down.

IRAQ: THE LOOMING WAR

KUWAIT CITY – In the Kuwaiti desert, dozens of kilometres from the border of Iraq, the US military has constructed a life-size town complete with buildings, shops, alleys, streetlights, abandoned cars and cut-outs of people.

This little city is not for rest and recreation. It is a mock town used by the army and Marines as a laboratory for deadly urban fighting.

It is the brainchild of defence planners in Washington to confront the prospect of house-to-house fighting with the elite Republican Guard in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities.

US intelligence believes that President Saddam Hussein’s strategy is to avoid confrontations in the open desert by drawing US forces into built-up areas in his country.

He said recently that he would arm all civilians, meaning that urban fighting is more than just a possibility for young US soldiers who have never known this type of warfare.

In 1991, when the United States fought Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, 148 American troops died in combat, but 24 per cent of the fatalities were the result of friendly fire.

This time around, the number of American casualties could be higher. A US Marine Corps study showed that casualties in urban areas could reach more than 30 per cent.

Historically, the US does not have a good track record in urban warfare, judging from its experiences in the Somalian capital Mogadishu and the Vietnamese city of Hue. But it has sought to upgrade the training regimen. Late last year, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a review of the military’s urban-fighting capabilities.

American soldiers are gung-ho about the training.

Members of the 101st Airborne Division, the 2nd and 3rd Brigade and other military units alternate in carrying out the drills every day.

The focus is on short-range targeting, given that in urban warfare, buildings act as shields and tactical engagements end up as firefights.

To meet these requirements, the training site, which is spread across 2 ha in the desert, is divided into two sections: a range for quick-response firing drills, and the mock town. But observers continue to believe that even with the training, the US military is going to face a hard time against Mr Saddam’s men.

US superiority over Baghdad lies in advanced technology, firepower and electronic intelligence-gathering – all of which would be limited severely when it comes to fighting in built-up areas where the enemy would be hard to spot. Military analyst Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute in Washington said that simulation levels for urban warfare were still ‘small-scale’.

‘The issue is whether they can meet larger challenges, the likes of Baghdad, which has a population of five million people,’ he told The Straits Times. ‘This is not going to be easy.’

Another important factor, he said, was synchronising air support for ground troops in the city – an area that still needed fine-tuning.

The US military might be plugging the gaps in confronting its Iraqi foe. But Dr Singer and other analysts make it clear that in urban warfare, ‘there will be casualties, no matter how good you are’.

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