THE IRAQ CONFLICT: MILITARY ANALYSIS - `A War like None Before' Is Turning out to Be All Too Familiar

By Bellamy, Christopher | The Independent (London, England), April 2, 2003 | Go to article overview
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THE IRAQ CONFLICT: MILITARY ANALYSIS - `A War like None Before' Is Turning out to Be All Too Familiar


Bellamy, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)


"A WAR LIKE none before," we were told. But by yesterday, the tactics of the latest, 13-day-old Gulf War were looking pretty familiar. "Sieges". "Blockade". "Bite-and-hold" tactics. And that stubborn reality of war which has had such a bad press: "attrition".

The British forces around Basra have been tightening their grip on Iraq's second city of more than a million people like a constricting snake. They are using the time-honoured method of "bite and hold": seizing a small area of ground, ensuring the forward edge is secure, and clearing it.

Images likening combat to eating were popular during the First World War. In this way the British have been working in from the south-east and north-west. But this cautious tactic is being combined with daring raids into the centre of the city, to destroy or capture Baath party and militia headquarters.

The latter are as much psychological warfare as physical. First World War tacticians bit and held because no other way was open to them: you had to chew through the flesh of the enemy to reach whatever lay behind. With modern intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition and air control you can simultaneously strike at enemy headquarters and senior people, and scare them rigid. The tactics being used in Basra are thus an intriguing hybrid of the old and the very new.

The British appear to be leaving the pro-Saddam elements in Basra a way out - an ancient device: the "golden bridge". An isolated enemy with no prospect of escape will fight until he runs out of ammunition, but leave him a way out and the temptation to run to fight another day can be overwhelming.

It is hard to avoid likening the strangulation of Basra to a siege or blockade. But the Allied commanders do not want it to become a full-scale siege, in which a surrounded enemy gives up because of starvation. The Iraqi strategy is clearly to draw US and British forces into costly fighting in their towns and cities. The US and British are sensibly trying to avoid this, and encouraging the Iraqis, as best they can, to move into open country where they can be dealt with more easily.

As US forces edge closer to Baghdad, the Iraqi Information Minister said yesterday his army was holding the Allied forces and inflicting attrition. Attrition has become a bit of a dirty word in Western staff colleges, where the "manoeuvrist approach" is now the mantra. Steady on, though. The race for Baghdad by the 3rd US Infantry Division (Mechanised), was indeed a classic piece of "manoeuvre", but not enough force was used to overwhelm, shock and awe the Iraqis.

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