GEORGE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Aug. 22 – If the U.S. wants to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Americans will probably have to fight his best-trained troops in downtown Baghdad. Itís a thought that gives U.S. generals pause.
TO SEE why, look no further than the 980 Marines under the command of Lt. Col. Michael Belcher here. In June they went through an experimental five-week training regimen in urban warfare, designed to lower the terrible casualty rates common in block-to-block fighting. This month, those same Marines were put to the test in a grueling four days of simulated urban combat, up against foes who had been coached in the hit-and-run tactics of guerrilla fighters.
ìWe need to prove to our enemies that we have the skills to defeat them in the city, and over the next 96 hours we will,î barked Col. Belcher to his men as the exercise began, his eyes hidden behind wraparound Oakley sunglasses.
The Marines, however, were also about to discover the high costs of urban warfare that often await even the best-trained troops.
Behind Col. Belcher stood the remains of the long-shuttered George Air Force Base, nicknamed ìal-Georgeî by the Marines after an imaginary Middle Eastern city. Inside, perched on rooftops and hiding behind sandbag bunkers, were the ìenemy fighters,î played by 160 Marine reservists. People hired from an employment agency helped populate the city with ìcivilians.î Both fighting forces were armed with simulated grenades and artillery rounds, plus rifles shooting clay bullets that leave just a small welt. For decades the U.S. military had a simple policy on urban fighting: Avoid it. Cities diminish Americaís huge technological advantages. Satellites and surveillance planes canít see inside buildings or down sewer tunnels where fighters may lurk. Moreover, urban battlefields are full of civilians-hard to distinguish for certain from combatants, and easily caught in the crossfire. Few things can alienate an ally more quickly than photos of dead women and children.
But two events persuaded the Marine Corps it couldnít simply bypass urban warfare. The first was the 1993 debacle in Somalia, when Army Rangers sent to capture a hostile warlord got into a nightlong firefight in Mogadishu that killed 18 Americans, including one dragged afterward through the streets. A year later, the U.S. watched as Chechen rebels inside the city of Grozny managed to destroy 102 of 120 Russian tanks sent after them.
And now Iraq. ìI know you all have been reading the papers and watching the news,î Col. Belcher told his Marines before he sent them into mock battle. ìThe next time you do this it might be for real.î
Mr. Hussein has recently moved batteries of surface-to-air missiles from the desert into Baghdad, a signal that if attacked he plans to fight U.S. troops in the city instead of the open desert, say defense intelligence officials. His elite Republican Guard, which before the Gulf War trained mostly in open terrain, also has stepped up its urban training, defense officials say.
Initially, the Marine Corps looked for a technological solution to urban battlefields. It experimented with remote-controlled surveillance vehicles and thermal sights to spot fighters in darkened rooms. But those measures wouldnít lower casualty rates, war games showed. So the Marines focused on training. For instance, they began to teach troops running down hallways to stay away from the sides, because bullets tend to ricochet and travel along walls. Marines also had to get used to facing fire from above and below instead of head-on.
In small-scale experiments, a month of urban-warfare training seemed to cut casualty rates to 15%, about half of whatís common in house-to-house fighting. But the Marine Corps couldnít be sure its training worked without testing it in a sprawling urban complex, where men could easily get lost and confused. George Air Force Base, with about 1,000 abandoned buildings packed into a half-mile square, is just such a place.
As the sun rose over al-George one morning this month, the nearly 1,000 Marines blinked away the last good nightís sleep they would have in four days. For the rest of the exercise they would be lucky to get more than a couple of hours of sleep each day, and that would come on a filthy floor covered with broken glass and spent shell casings.
Key to the fight were 135 Marines from Lima Company, under the command of Capt. George Schreffler, a stocky 31-year-old who has wanted to be a Marine since he was 10 years old and wrote a letter to a recruiter. He still has the letter the Marines sent him in reply.
Lima Companyís job was to fight from the southern edge of the city to the north, dislodging the rebels from their bunkers inside a thicket of one- and two-story cinderblock apartment houses. Once they reached the northern edge, their job would be to clear a landing zone for about 150 helicopter-borne Marines from India Company, who would swoop in to finish off the exposed enemy fighters. A third unit, Kilo Company, would attack from the west, acting as a decoy to divert the foesí attention. The rest of the troops would evacuate casualties, treat the wounded and make sure fuel, food and water got to the troops.
ìYouíre my right cross,î the tall, lean Col. Belcher told Lima Company. ìPut the enemy back on his heels so India Company can knock them out.î
U.S. forces usually prefer to fight after dark because they have superior night-vision technology. But in cities nighttime fighting can mean chaos and ìfratricideî-men inadvertently killing fellow troops. So Lima Company aimed to clear the landing zone by 4 p.m., giving the follow-on forces three hours of daylight to kill the enemy before darkness brought them a chance to regroup.
Like most Marine companies, Capt. Schrefflerís consisted of three platoons, each led by a lieutenant. Each platoon, in turn, had three squads of 10 to 15 men led by a corporal, a young enlisted man. If all went as planned, Lima Companyís three platoons would reach the northern landing zone at the same time.
Minutes before the fight began, Capt. Schrefflerís biggest concern was that one platoon, commanded by Lt. Stanton Lee, wouldnít reach the landing area in time. In practice runs, Lt. Lee had been cautious and methodical. ìBe aggressive,î the captain told him. ìYour blood should be up!î
At 11 a.m. the battle started. The Marines hopped from their armored vehicles and ran toward a line of low-slung buildings on the cityís edge.
Suddenly 70 people, screaming for protection, came running at them. ìDonít shoot!î Lt. Lee screamed. ìCivilians!î
Amid the confusion, one of his squad leaders, Cpl. David Jennings, lost track of his men, half of whom ran into the wrong building. The 20-year-old Cpl. Jennings quickly collected his lost charges and returned with them, only to discover that Lt. Lee and the rest of the platoon had moved out without them.
Cpl. Jennings and his 10-man squad were on their own. On an open battlefield, young squad leaders like him can usually maintain eye contact with senior officers. Often they communicate with hand signals. In cities, the many buildings and walls make that impossible.
Thirty minutes passed before Lt. Lee even realized that Cpl. Jenningsís squad had fallen behind. Frantically, the lieutenant began calling for Cpl. Jennings, who, because of his baby-face looks, had been saddled with the unfortunate radio call sign ìPedophile.î
ìPedophile! Pedophile! Where are you, Pedophile?î Lt. Lee yelled into the radio. No answer. Itís a common problem. Military radios, designed for fighting in open terrain, donít work nearly as well in cities full of obstructions.
The lieutenant gave up trying to raise his squad leader. ìWeíre getting bogged down again,î he said. ìLetís go.î
To advance to the next cluster of buildings, Lt. Leeís platoon needed to kill a machine-gunner in a small building. Lt. Lee grabbed a 19-year-old lance corporal armed with an antitank rocket and ordered him to take out the gunnerís nest. It was a risky maneuver. They were inside a building, and antitank rockets, like many basic infantry weapons, canít be fired inside a building. The tremendous fiery back-blast could kill the triggerman.
So the lance corporal had to venture outside, making himself an easy target. Hoisting the heavy rocket on his shoulder, he dashed to a nearby courtyard. He was lining up his shot when Lt. Lee noticed the rocket was pointed at the wrong building. As Lt. Lee ran out to correct the lance corporal, the reservists playing the role of enemy guerrillas opened fire with their clay bullets, ìkillingî both Marines.
With its leader dead, Lt. Leeís platoon fell apart. A half-dozen more members were soon knocked off when they bunched up outside the entrance to an apartment house. A mock enemy sniper picked off seven others. By 2 p.m., only nine members of the 35-man platoon remained alive, all of them members of Cpl. Jenningsís squad. The other two platoons in Capt. Schrefflerís company also suffered heavy losses. The captain radioed Col. Belcher and told him his Marines werenít going to clear the northern helicopter landing zone in time. Col. Belcher retooled the plan. Instead of landing the India Company reinforcements in the north, he decided they would touch down in a courtyard in the southernmost part of the city, which Capt. Schrefflerís men had already overrun. The airborne reinforcements then would push north through a corridor cleared by what was left of Capt. Schrefflerís Lima Company, walking and riding in Humvees.
The pressure remained on Cpl. Jennings to reach the northern edge by 4 p.m. Operating on their own, the once-lost squad was beginning to work as a team, moving in a choreographed advance. First two men sprinted about 10 yards, then took cover behind a wall. As they ran, two others laid down a blast of covering fire. Then it was those two menís turn to sprint, as their partners provided the covering fire.
Instead of circling a building to get to the door, the squad smashed through windows. Four hours into the battle, their uniforms were torn and their hands streaked with blood. Sweat cut tiny wavy channels through the grime on their faces. Many were dizzy from heat and dehydration.
Around 3 p.m., exhausted, they flopped down inside a house about 200 yards short of their objective, a cluster of five buildings up ahead. ìWhereís our machine-gunner?î Cpl. Jennings asked, looking for a Marine attached to the platoon.
ìHeís dead. Everyoneís dead,î replied another Marine.
Cpl. Jenningsís eight Marines and one medic, a Navy corpsman, concluded they simply didnít have enough men to take the remaining five buildings. They decided to hold their ground and wait for reinforcements.
Suddenly, Lt. Paul Gillikin, Lima Companyís second in command, stormed into the small house where Cpl. Jennings and his men had taken cover. Lt. Gillikin actually had been ìkilledî several hours earlier. But he couldnít stand to see Cpl. Jennings and his fellow Marines give up. He grabbed a machine gun left behind by a dead Marine and set it up. Then he ordered Cpl. Jennings to get on the radio and call one of Lima Companyís M1A1 tanks, a 72-ton behemoth that can flatten almost anything. Cpl. Jennings had never worked with a tank-a job that usually falls to a far more senior officer-and it hadnít occurred to him to call one in.
When the tank arrived, it used its main gun in mock destruction of three houses where the enemy had taken refuge. With the help of their machine gun, Cpl. Jennings and his men then stormed the remaining two buildings.
Once they reached their final objective, a small cluster of houses on the northern fringe of ìal-George,î Cpl. Jennings ordered his squad to take up defensive positions. ìI donít want to come in and see you on your ass asleep,î he yelled. The men nodded, and then collapsed. Cpl. Jennings didnít check on them. Instead he radioed his new position to Capt. Schreffler. Then he fell to the floor in exhaustion himself.
Thirty minutes later, the reinforcements from India Company arrived, racing through the house in pursuit of the fleeing enemy. Cpl. Jennings and his men tore into a cold dinner and then spent the night on a dirty floor, anxiously awaiting a nighttime ambush that never came. The next day they shifted into peacekeeping duty, a chore that kept them awake and on edge for most of two more days.
The Marine Corps says it has already learned some lessons from the mock assault. One is that even young Marines, such as Cpl. Jennings, need to be trained with tanks. Another is that platoons fighting inside cities could benefit from the presence of a senior enlisted man whose job would be to pass on intelligence from higher headquarters.
A few cautions for any future combat inside a city also stand out. In urban terrain, with its maze of alleys, even the most basic plans are difficult to pull off. The Marines lost 142 men in their last major urban battle, the 1968 Hue City battle in Vietnam.
The experiment showed that even the ablest Marines can get bogged down if they face a dug-in and determined enemy. In the Gulf War, U.S. ground forces routed the Iraqis in a mere 100 hours, after air power had softened them up. A ground war in the streets of Iraqís capital city could take much longer.
Finally, the assault on ìal-Georgeî made clear that attacking cities without having a big numerical advantage is a risky endeavor. More-hawkish members of the Bush administration have suggested that a U.S. force of 80,000 would be enough to defeat Mr. Husseinís 400,000-member army and 100,000-strong Republican Guard. Theyíre counting on the army being dispirited and the rest of the force turning on Mr. Hussein at some point in the fighting.
In the assault on ìal-George,î however, it took 980 Marines to roust just 160 rebels from urban terrain. And despite wielding a 6-to-1 advantage, the Marine force still took about 100 casualties.
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