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Iraqis 'lying in wait for battle of Baghdad'

03/04/2003 14:56  - (SA)

London - The Americans are advancing on Baghdad but their gains may be a sign the Iraqis are pulling back to reinforce the capital for a "mother of all urban warfare" showdowns, analysts said on Thursday.

"I'm not quite certain they have outflanked the Republican Guards divisions," said William Hopkinson, of the London-based think tank the Royal Institute of International Affairs, referring to the elite Iraqi troops guarding the approaches to Baghdad.

"If they had destroyed them, you'd expect to see a lot more litter," such as destroyed tanks and even dead bodies, he said about US reports that two Republic Guard divisions have been destroyed.

Hopkinson said that even if "50% of the Republican Guards have withdrawn intact, that is not good news."

The New York Times quoted a senior American military officer in Washington saying that "the enemy is taking what forces he can muster and is ordering them back into the city...for a last stand".

US forces had moved into the outskirts of Baghdad on Thursday and were poised outside the airport, as the war to oust President Saddam Hussein entered its third week.

Movement within Baghdad itself

In a two-pronged attack Wednesday, US troops passed through a tight strip of desert southwest of Baghdad at Karbala, while Marines crossed the Tigris river to the southeast, crushing sections of the Republican Guard.

The Baghdad and Medina divisions of the Republican Guard, considered Iraq's best trained and most motivated troops, were "no longer credible forces" but have been reinforced with regular Iraqi army forces, US Major General Stanley McChrystal, Joint Staff vice director of operations, said in Washington.

Cliff Beal, editor of the prestigious military magazine Jane's Defense Weekly, said there "appears to be movement within Baghdad itself, the setting up of artillery, an increasing trempo in defending the city".

But he said it was "too soon to tell" what all this meant.

He said the Iraqis have "played a bad hand well" as they are so clearly outgunned by invading US-British forces.

The Iraqis know their "ultimate defence is the urban area," where the technological advantage of US and British troops is diminished and where growing civilian casualties would cause the allies political problems in continuing their offensive.

The battle for Baghdad "could be the largest example of urban combat seen since Grozny", referring to the Russian army's storming of the Chechen capital.

He said the Russian option, namely leveling a city or large parts of it to rubble, was not something the coalition could afford politically to do and that in any case "it didn't solve things for the Russians. They still took heavy casualties".

The New York Times reported that the US goal is to move its troops to the entrance to Baghdad and prepare for the final battle inside the city.

Beal said this did not mean the final push on Baghdad was imminent, as the encirling of the southern city of Basra by British troops has not led to a drive into the city for fear of civilian casualties.

Beal said Saddam's regime was in desperate straits and was looking for public relations coups.

Saddam "knows he can't win this in terms of full firepower so he has to continue to win on the public opinion side.

"He can do this by portraying troops as invaders who take innocent lives," Beal said.

Former Nato commander in Europe US general Wesley Clark said, however, in the London Times newspaper on Thursday that coalition forces cannot wait too long to attack Baghdad since delays only allow "anger in the Arab world" to increase.

"The sooner we gain and occupy the Iraqi capital, the better. It will not be the last fight in this campaign (for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, and Arabs everywhere) but it is the fight we have to win now," Clark said.


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