Middle East

Could Saddam still win?
By Marc Erikson

As technically vastly superior and soon to be further reinforced US-led coalition forces reach the vicinity of Baghdad, poised for the final push on the Iraqi capital, the question posed in the headline may seem little more than rhetorical. It is not. Consider why Saddam Hussein made the decision to stay in Iraq and fight in the first place; consider what - in his mind - might constitute victory even as most of his country is occupied by enemy forces.

For answers, first turn to Saddam's war plan as evidenced by developments so far and the mode of conduct of Iraqi military and irregular forces. In the Gulf War, large Iraqi units, dug in and positioned around and north of Kuwait, confronted allied troops in the open desert and, softened and demoralized by weeks of heavy bombardment, quickly buckled and surrendered to massed firepower. No comparable encounters have occurred in this war to date. No coherent Iraqi military moves have been witnessed. Instead, much of the fighting has been done by politically motivated paramilitary forces (Fedayeen Saddam, al-Quds), interspersed with disguised regulars, who blend in with civilians and hit targets of opportunity. Units of the Republican Guard Forces Command (six divisions totaling around 50,000 men) have not offered battle.

This is a clear portent of things to come. The guard divisions around Baghdad and Tikrit (Saddam and his clan's home base) may or may not put up a tough fight. That's a conventional military concern and of less relevance than now accorded in the media. These troops constitute an outer barrier and may be sacrificed - though they, too, are undoubtedly interspersed with irregulars, spread out, and less vulnerable to air strikes and artillery than if they were encountered in open terrain. Saddam's strategy, as is now evident, is to sacrifice open spaces, but to hold urban areas and conduct guerrilla-style harassment operations in coalition rearguard areas. All this is to gain time, even prior to an eventual siege of Baghdad. Such a siege itself will prove time-consuming or, alternatively, be costly in the extreme in civilian lives as well as coalition casualties. Saddam's calculation is simple: Baghdad under lengthy siege could not only lead to ever-growing mobilizations of the "Arab street" in neighboring countries, but also prompt condemnation in the UN by the France-Germany-Russia axis with demands for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement.

Saddam and his political leadership probably count on a lack of political will on the part of the US and the UK to terminate any siege quickly at the cost of massive civilian and military bloodshed and large-scale destruction of infrastructure. That calculation might prove erroneous. It might also prove erroneous to assume that well-trained and equipped coalition soldiers would necessarily be at a disadvantage when it comes to Stalingrad-type house-to-house combat. In the Stalingrad battle 60 years ago, the Soviet worker militias collapsed early on. The decisive combat was carried out by equally matched regular army units. But, of course, no matter how you look at it, the destruction and casualties were appalling.

And Saddam's options for final victory, at least in his mind, are not necessarily exhausted by forcing a long or bloody siege. He could, and ultimately may well be prepared to enact the "Samson option" of pulling the temple down on himself and the Baghdad population. He would then stand as a martyr for the cause of Arab independence and freedom from foreign occupation of holy lands, making any expected positive post-war settlements, whether in Iraq or Palestine, potentially illusory. The war in Iraq, then, would stand in history not as the beginning of a new period of freedom, democracy, and prosperity, but as the beacon, the signal fire for a Thirty-Years-War style period of unending conflict and clash of civilizations.

This is Spengler-esque; it is not a prediction. But a week into the war and close observation of both sides' strategies and tactics, it has a sufficiently high probability of playing out that it cannot simply be dismissed.

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Mar 29, 2003

For whom the Iraqi bell tolls (Mar 28, '03)

The 'Palestinization'
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The Baghdad Goetter-
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Jihad in Mesopotamia (Mar 26, '03)

Saddam's Samson option (Feb 21, '03)


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