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Will Baghdad become the mother of all battles?

Despite their rapid advance in Iraq, allies still don't control any city fully, writes C Uday Bhaskar.

world Updated: Apr 04, 2003 00:34 IST

At the end of the first fortnight of the current war, the principal adversaries on both sides - the US and Iraq - are attempting to synergise their current military-political-social moves on a complex chessboard.

Militarily it is significant that the US led coalition forces have been able to make a very rapid advance through the desert and this speed of manoeuvre and the concentration of force is indeed quite remarkable. But the fact remains that as of Thursday, April 3, no Iraqi city or town is fully under coalition control and this is indicative of the resistance being offered by Iraq as a collective.

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The military strategy adopted by the US and Iraq relied on their respective advantages - overwhelming stand-off fire-power backed by high technology in the case of the former and a rudimentary defensive approach backed by fierce and defiant nationalism on the other - and this is more than evident on the ground at this point.



The coalition forces are closing in on Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, in a three-pronged manner with the southern and north-western axis in place. The likely opening from the north, through Turkey will enable the US forces to apply greater force in a focussed way and tighten the noose over the regime and one may well see the battle for Baghdad being prosecuted in the next 10 days.

On the Iraqi side, it appears that the strategy is to attack the coalition forces with their extended lines of communication where possible, even while carrying out raids by irregular forces - a combination of the regular military scattered with elite forces, militia and the suicide squads.

This strategy has enabled Iraq to prevent the coalition from obtaining full control of inhabited areas - but this may not quite prevent the final outcome of the war - American military victory.

However, this final resolution of the military strand will be predicated on the manner in which the battle for Baghdad shapes. The Iraqi strategy would be to draw the coalition into the city and use the inherent advantage of the defender in urban guerrilla warfare and then increase the costs - both human and political - for President George W Bush.

To that extent the element of time offer a contrast on both sides.

It would be in the US interest to push for a swift conclusion of the war with minimum human toll, both for US troops and the Iraqi civilian population, while Iraq would like to prolong the war to the extent they can.

Here the weather factor becomes relevant and hypothetically if the war is prolonged by a month and goes into early May, the desert conditions will tax the coalition's human and material resources considerably and degrade their fighting efficacy.

Such an exigency may also encourage the US to use its firepower with greater determination and in a less discriminate manner thereby increasing the already considerable Iraqi civilian casualties. This in turn will be beamed to a global community that is very troubled by the images they see through 24 hours TV coverage and this plays out in the political and social domains.

Despite the determination of the Bush team to emerge militarily victorious in this war - they are not impervious to the political objectives for this military action - and the prevailing global mood apropos the US at both state and societal level. To an extent this a Catch-22 situation and much will depend on the call made by General Tommy Franks, the local US commander and the kind of political empathy and support he receives from the White House.

The White House in turn will have to make a strategic decision in terms of how much force to apply - against Baghdad and within the UN Security Council - and how to package it. As of now, the Iraq matrix is reasonably clear with one wild card - the manner in which the call of jehad given by the Iraqi regime will spread through the Arab and Islamic world.

To date there is no sign of any terrorist activity but were this fringe to be ignited, the US responses may not be as linear and predictable. The manner in which Baghdad is seized will shape the contours of post war Iraq and its 'democratization' - one of the main objectives of the war apart from the weapons of mass destruction issue.

At the larger political level, any massive use of force will add to the discontent and dismay expressed by Paris, Moscow and Beijing and the rumblings about the covert support and sympathy for Baghdad by these capitals may become more tangled. Within Europe, the German stance will be critical both in terms of intra-EU relations as also the trans-Atlantic relationship and its impact on the global chessboard.

But this is also a war that has many invisible strands and imponderables. There must be some areas of military operations and political initiatives that are still shrouded - for example special forces in parts of Iraq not reported on TV and the post Saddam political dispensation whether under US auspices or otherwise.

One presumes that some of these contours will become more discernible in the next fortnight - unless Baghdad becomes the mother of all battles that no one wants - wherein the elusive weapons of mass destruction makes its appearance in an intended or unintended manner by state or non-state actors. The Iraq war would then take a completely different turn.