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Mark Bowden on the Battle of Baghdad

Mark Bowden, author of Black Hawk Down -- making him arguably the most knowledgeable journalist alive when it comes to modern urban warfare -- has written a thoughtful opinion piece for the New York Times on the battle for Baghdad:

Saddam Hussein... might be on the verge of delivering the "mother of all battles" he promised 12 years ago.

He... has left pockets of determined loyalists in cities large and small. These troops, many dressed in civilian clothing, will shoot at coalition forces from densely populated areas, daring return fire...

It is a strategy both cunning and cruel, and it may work. The outcome will depend in large part on the people of Baghdad, each of whom has a decision to make...

Saddam Hussein is betting that his people will rally around his crack troops. The allies are betting they will betray the dictator and flush out his enforcers. I'm afraid the odds at this point favor Saddam Hussein. Even those Iraqis eager to turn against the regime are still caught between the guns, and won't dare make a move until they are sure one side has the upper hand. Neighborhood by neighborhood, they will have to decide when it is safe to make their move.

If Saddam Hussein wins his bet, then coalition forces could face fighting reminiscent of the 1993 battle of Mogadishu. There would be important differences, of course. The 150 American troops trapped in the streets of Mogadishu were members of a light infantry unit cut off from backup or supply, without armor, dependent on a small number of helicopters for air support. Allied troops in Baghdad would number in the tens of thousands, with full armor and air support, and, as soon as the coalition manages to buttress its overextended supply line, a huge support system.

But no matter what kind of power can be rolled into Baghdad, if it faces a hostile population, as our troops did in Mogadishu, the scene could turn into a nightmare. Soldiers would be moving in a 360-degree battlefield with obstructed sight lines and impaired radio communications, trying to pick out targets from a civilian population determined to hide, supply and shield the enemy, unable to attack Iraqi firing positions without killing civilians. Even in victory such a battle would outrage the Arab world and fulfill the fears of the war's critics.

In other words, the battle of Mogadishu rendered 10 or 100 times larger. It's a frightening thought.

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