Overwhelming Baghdad

FROM A STRICTLY military standpoint, the speed and effectiveness with which the U.S. forces have tightened their grip on Baghdad have been extremely striking. The larger issue, however, is the extraordinary human cost of this aggressive push into the Iraqi capital and, that too, in an unequal war where there was always going to be only one victor. Not surprisingly, the tremendous aggression with which the U.S. forces have swept into Baghdad has met with widespread criticism. Disapproval of the ruthless tactics was aired even by sections of the British media, which contrasted this with the relatively patient and subtle strategy used by Britain's own forces in capturing Basra. The assault on Baghdad clearly reveals that the U.S. strategy is dictated by the overweening consideration of bringing the battle to a quick end. Among the many fears about engaging in a longer war is the adverse impact it will have not only in the Arab countries but pretty much all over the world, where anti-war sentiments, coupled with anti-U.S. emotions, are growing with every passing day.

The cost of a quick and aggressive occupation of a capital such as Baghdad is exactly what it was feared to be — considerable collateral damage. Washington never tires of repeating that it is doing whatever it can to minimise such damage, a claim which is hardly corroborated by the events on the ground. Iraq claims that the occupying forces have already killed almost 1,300 civilians. The U.S. counters that this is grossly exaggerated and while there are no independent and accurate figures for civilian casualties at this juncture, the available evidence does suggest that these are already high. Many Iraqi soldiers have surrendered and the Government is clearly no longer in control of Baghdad, but questions remain about the degree and extent of resistance the Republican Guard and troops loyal to Saddam Hussein, reportedly holed up in civilian areas, will stage. If there are strong pockets of resistance, the chances are that the U.S. may inflict more civilian casualties than in any other recent war it has engaged in. The Iraq conflict has shown that while precision munitions may work well in open country, their use in densely-populated urban areas cannot but kill innocent people. For instance, the bombs that were intended to kill Saddam Hussein in a restaurant missed the eatery but flattened the area around it, killing at least 14 people and wounding scores of others. To make matters worse, the U.S. has demonstrated that it is not averse to liberally using far less accurate heavy artillery in urban areas.

In Baghdad, two journalists already paid for this with their lives and others were injured when U.S. tanks fired at the Palestine Hotel, where a number of reporters from around the world are staying. Washington's claim that the hotel was targeted in response to sniper fire has evoked sceptical reactions. This is partly because it is difficult to see what threat a sniper or two could have posed to a convoy of U.S. tanks. Moreover, why respond by pounding a building that has clearly been identified as a hotel and one which journalists inhabit? Besides, on the same day the office of the television station al-Jazeera was hit, killing a cameraman; so was the office of Abu Dhabi TV. Twelve journalists have been killed in the conflict so far, raising serious questions not only about the safety of the press but also about issues relating to the management of news and the possible disregard for those who have chosen, as opposed to the embedded journalists, to witness and report on the war independently. The strategy employed to capture Baghdad and incapacitate the Saddam Hussein regime so quickly may provide a lot for military historians and strategists to pore or gloat over. But what will weigh heavily on the minds of most people are the cost at which this was achieved and the basis it provides for constructing an edifice for peace — something which is going to be a much lengthier and a much more significant battle.