The U.S. military plans to establish a loose "cordon" around Baghdad and begin leafletting and radio and television broadcasts designed to convince the capital's 5 million residents that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will soon be defeated, defense officials said yesterday.
Officials also said that U.S. commanders hope to use certain geographic features -- including the Tigris River, which bisects Baghdad, and a number of broad avenues that cut through it -- to divide the city into sections. U.S. Special Operations and armored forces would attempt to seize those sections one by one and clear each of Iraqi soldiers and the irregular militias fighting alongside them.
The cordon would differ from a siege, officials explained, in that people who wanted to leave the city would be permitted to go, and humanitarian relief would come in. But there would be no attempt to empty Baghdad of its civilian population to isolate Iraqi forces entrenched there, because the creation of huge refugee camps on the outskirts of the city could create an array of serious humanitarian concerns.
The plan is designed to avoid turning the battle for Baghdad into a latter-day Stalingrad and to persuade the city's people that they should assist -- or, at the very least, not deter -- U.S. troops when they enter the city. U.S. forces would simultaneously continue Special Operations raids and sniper attacks on the ground and precision bombing from the air.
Psychological operations like those planned for Baghdad were a major part of the attack in southern Iraq, where U.S. forces dropped more than 25 million leaflets urging Iraqis to surrender and welcome the coalition troops as liberators. It was unclear how well that campaign was received in the south, though U.S. officials have said that prisoners of war told their captors that the Commando Solo broadcasts of news mixed with pop and traditional Arab music were widely received and popular.
Military analysts and retired generals asked about the U.S. commanders' strategy said it made sense given the size of the city and the number of U.S. troops at hand. "The logical thing to do would be to establish a loose cordon and then tighten it as much as you can until serious resistance is encountered," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr. "There is no need for lightning advances -- you can do that, if you find an opportunity, but you don't have to. The key word here is pressure."
"If the population receives them pretty well or even in neutral fashion," added retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, a former commander of Army Special Operations, "they may have enough force to go ahead and press in and take some key places, and hold them and make the [Republican] Guards attack them."
As U.S. forces closed in on the city yesterday, commanders and defense officials appeared confident that they could avoid the bloody block-by-block fighting usually characteristic of urban combat and the large numbers of civilian casualties that such warfare almost certainly would entail.
"We'll develop intelligence," Army Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks told reporters at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar. "We'll develop our target set. And we'll be very, very deliberate about the work that we do. There will be absolutely no randomness associated with the way we make our approach -- deliberate work and carefully done."
At the Pentagon, Army Maj. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that of Iraq's six Republican Guard divisions, two have been destroyed and the other four have been "significantly degraded."
"We do see some sort of regime command and control, but effective military command and control, which has normally emanated from the core of the regime, has not been apparent on the battlefield," McChrystal said. "The fabric, the cohesion of the defense isn't there. They may be able to pull it together, but there's no evidence of that yet."
Still, some defense officials and analysts cautioned that the fight for Baghdad could be far more difficult than rapid advances of recent days might suggest. U.S. commanders probably do not yet have enough forces, they noted, to protect their long supply lines, probe Baghdad's defenses and effectively cordon the city, which is about 20 miles by 20 miles in size.
One worried Army officer said that at Stalingrad, where a six-month siege by Nazi troops left hundreds of thousands of Russians dead but ended in failure, "the Germans made fairly good progress through the suburbs of the city, but once they hit the main city, it became a slugfest."
What's more, he noted, the Germans had more freedom to operate, because they "didn't care if they hit civilian targets. We will need to conduct some very violent actions in Baghdad, but we need to resist the trap of rubbling the city and conducting the 'classic' clearing-type operations on a large scale."
Another pessimist, retired Israeli Army Col. Gal Luft, who commanded Israeli forces in the city of Ramallah in 1997, said that if the Iraqi people "attempt to defend their regime," U.S. troops could encounter the same hazards Israeli forces faced clearing the Jenin refugee camp last year on the West Bank. "This is likely to inflict heavy casualties on the attacking forces as well as on the local population," he said.
Defense intelligence officials at the Pentagon said they still do not have a precise handle on how many Republican Guard units, hit hard by U.S. forces approaching the city from the south, have fallen back into Baghdad and reconstituted themselves as a fighting force.
But almost no one inside the U.S. military believes the 15,000-strong Special Republican Guard -- Hussein's closest and most loyal defenders -- will give up without a stiff fight. "Baghdad is their back yard, and the Special Republican Guard has been preparing for this fight for years," said Scott Ritter, a former Marine intelligence officer who became the United Nations' chief weapons inspector in Iraq in the mid- to late 1990s and had more than a few encounters with the Guard.
Ritter said the Special Republican Guard's infantry battalions are equipped with vehicle-mounted antitank missile launchers that they will undoubtedly use against armored thrusts by U.S. forces.
Controlling the Special Republican Guard and other intelligence and security services in Baghdad, he said, is the most powerful security agency of all, the Special Security Organization, run by Hussein's son, Qusay. The SSO, the Mukhabarat intelligence service and the Amn al-Amm security service, he said, all have brigade-size paramilitary units and thousands of plainclothes officers.
"Baghdad has been organized into security sectors for years, each under a specific jurisdiction of the Special Security Organization," Ritter said. "Every residence has been plotted, together with resumes about the residents and their loyalty."
Retired Army Col. Johnny Brooks, an expert in infantry tactics, said the war in Iraq has clearly reached its most dangerous phase, with much of the U.S. military's technological advantage blunted by complex urban terrain.
"The problem with the urban fight is not the good guy or the bad guy, it is the noncombatant," Brooks said.
"If all the noncombatants are out of the city, it is just a fight. With noncombatants inside, it can be an absolute mess."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.