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A question of casualties in Iraq

Public support of war likely to hinge on combat toll, military analysts say

By Michael Kilian
Washington Bureau
Chicago Tribune

December 30, 2002

WASHINGTON -- On the basis of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the campaigns in the Balkans and the anti-terrorist war in Afghanistan, the American public has grown accustomed to victorious U.S. military operations with relatively little cost in American blood.

But, as some military leaders have privately cautioned in recent days, a fight to the death with Saddam Hussein in Iraq could reap a grim harvest in dead and wounded in terms of American military personnel and Iraqi civilians in whose midst Hussein might make his last stand.

A big unknown facing U.S. war planners as they prepare for operations that could commence as early as next month is the death count and its effect on U.S. and world opinion.

"No one can predict the casualties that will result," said Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a leading Middle East expert. "People make estimates and they get put in the papers, but they're meaningless. We just don't know--especially if Saddam Hussein decides to use his weapons of mass destruction."

The United States won the Persian Gulf war with fewer than 150 American dead, a low number when compared with previous American wars that had losses in the tens or hundreds of thousands. The 1999 assault on Yugoslavia liberated the province of Kosovo without the loss of a single American in combat. The invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban and has resulted in fewer than 40 American deaths.

If another Iraq war were to yield significantly more deaths, some say, the administration could find itself with a version of a Vietnam problem: mounting body bags that prompt the public to question why the U.S. is at war half a world away.

"If you get [the toll] into the mid-hundreds running up toward a thousand, you will see public sentiment questioning the legitimacy of what we're doing," said Jay Farrar, a former Marine Corps officer and Defense Department official. "The public will want to know more about what it is we're doing on a more regular basis, and why we're doing it this way, and what is leading to this number of deaths."

Avoiding heavy losses

The Bush administration is not publicly addressing the question of casualties, although its battle plans appear designed to avoid a high U.S. death toll. The White House may fear such talk could weaken public support for the war.

Yet success or failure may turn on the casualty factor more than any other one.

As the Vietnam and Korean Wars have shown, too many U.S. losses--combined with too little progress over too long a time--can erode the political support a president needs to wage war.

A slaughter of Iraqi civilians also could diminish support at home while alienating U.S. allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf, provoke further bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians and inflame anti-American feelings among fundamentalist Muslims.

Some estimate that up to 50,000 Iraqi civilians could die in a U.S. onslaught. The exact number would depend on whether the vaunted U.S. precision bombs and missiles work as advertised, and to what degree Hussein decides to use his country's noncombatants as shields.

As for U.S. military deaths, that number is likely to be determined by the American battle plan and how large a force goes in, whether American troops are compelled to wage urban warfare in Baghdad, and--in a worst-case scenario--whether Hussein uses weapons of mass destruction.

Seizing port first

According to many analysts, the most probable attack scenario calls for American troops to seize the Iraqi port of Basra and key sections of southern, western and northern Iraq, but to surround rather than invade the heavily defended capital, in the hopes that a siege will force Hussein's fall without a great loss of American life.

As in Afghanistan, where most of the fighting was done by the Northern Alliance and other Afghan tribal groups, the U.S. would rely heavily on Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebels to take and hold territory and would urge defections in the Iraqi military.

Massive, highly focused use of air power and precision bombs and missiles would play a major role in the operation.

William Taylor, a Washington military consultant and former West Point instructor, predicted that U.S. losses likely would be held under a thousand, as they were in the first gulf war.

"A lot of people said we'd lose 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 at the time," Taylor said. "We ended up with 148 killed."

U.S. casualties could mount, however, if the Baghdad siege became protracted or if an all-out assault on the city and Hussein's elite Republican Guard proved to be the only way to dislodge the Iraqi leader.

The Iraqis, for their part, are predicting a high number of U.S. deaths.

"The assault against Iraq will not be a cakewalk for the Americans, but a fierce war during which the United States will suffer losses they have never sustained for decades," vowed Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz this year.

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution, said the number of U.S. casualties should not be underestimated.

"The United States could plausibly lose ... as many as 5,000 troops if the Republican Guard fights as hard and as effectively as its size and weaponry would plausibly allow within the urban settings of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities," O'Hanlon said. "While such a war would not become a quagmire under even the worst of circumstances, it could be rather bloody."

If that scenario materializes, the shock to the American system could be considerable. Over the past three decades, Americans have recoiled anytime the number of deaths in a world hot spot has grown beyond a handful--which adversaries have used to their advantage.

In 1983 after President Ronald Reagan sent about 2,500 Marines into Lebanon, about 250 died when terrorists bombed their barracks. The U.S. swiftly withdrew the force.

President Bill Clinton called a halt to operations in Somalia after losing just 29 military personnel--18 of them in the "Black Hawk Down" battle of Mogadishu. These casualties represented less than 0.5 percent of the forces deployed, but their deaths were considered evidence of failure.

Going further back, the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam turned out to be an enormous American victory by any objective military measure, with the U.S. retaking all positions lost and suffering 1,536 battle deaths to the enemy's 45,000, according to the Pentagon's figures. But the bloodshed turned public opinion overwhelmingly against the war.

"The American people take a very simplistic view of military operations," said Farrar, a former National Security Council staff member. "Everyone thought Tet was a huge U.S. defeat because that was the way it was portrayed. As you know, it was a huge victory. The North Vietnamese were on the verge of collapsing."

Too afraid of casualties?

A phenomenon of recent times is the perception that the U.S. military and its political overseers have become too casualty-averse to wage an effective war.

The U.S. campaign against the Serbs in Kosovo was confined mostly to the air, and combat pilots were forbidden to operate below 15,000 feet, lest they fall to Serbian anti-aircraft weapons. In World War II, losses of 10 percent or more in long-range bombing raids were commonplace--a casualty rate that would be unthinkable in an air war today.

It was not until Kosovar partisans began engaging Slobodan Milosevic's forces on the ground, and the U.S. threatened to do the same, that the Serb military began to run from its hiding places.

Taylor emphasized that his low casualty estimate of less than 1,000 in an Iraq war does not take into account the possible use of chemical and biological weapons by Hussein's forces.

"That's a different ballgame," he said. "If Saddam decides to commit suicide and use them, we're going to take casualties, no doubt about it--and no one can give you an estimate."

The Pentagon has stockpiled thousands of chemical and biological protective suits for its troops. But the suits have not been widely tested in combat, their use is of limited duration, and they make combat and even movement unpleasant in the heat--especially the 120-degree-plus temperatures typical of an Iraqi spring or summer.

Chemical weapons used

Hussein has been willing to unleash weapons of mass destruction. He used chemical weapons against his own people in the northern Kurdish area and against Iranian troops during the war between Iran and Iraq.

In the 1980-1988 war with Iran, after suffering 250,000 battle casualties to Iran's 300,000, Hussein sought unsuccessfully to end the stalemate by using mustard gas and nerve gas, killing 10,000 Iranians, according to a UN report.

Given the global nature of the terrorist threat and the increasing animosity toward Americans among radical Muslims, the response to significant numbers of Iraqi casualties among the Arab public is another worry.

"The problem of civilian casualties and collateral damage can always become a sudden political crisis, in spite of U.S. attempts to minimize it--complicated by a worst case in which allied attacks on Iraqi military facilities release significant amounts of chemical and biological weapons," Cordesman said.

Taylor said U.S. technology has improved twelve-fold since the 1991 war, and precision bombs and weapons are now the norm. But recent experience suggests that even this dazzling technology is not perfect.

The U.S. mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy and attacked a civilian passenger train in the Kosovo war, for example. And an American gunship shot up a civilian wedding engagement party in Afghanistan, provoking outrage throughout the Islamic world.

Risks high in close fight

These risks will increase if the battle for Baghdad becomes a bloody hand-to-hand fight.

"There's been a lot of loose talk about how high technology allows you to do all sorts of new things," O'Hanlon said. "But in cities it's pretty tough."

Farrar said he doubts Americans would be greatly concerned about Iraqi civilian deaths.

"That sounds pretty cold, but yeah, people in the U.S., if it doesn't touch us in a real defined way, tend to see things very abstractly," he said.

Opinion polls bear out the notion that U.S. public support for a war on Iraq, which has been fairly strong, could fade quickly if the body bags mount.

In a CBS News/New York Times poll taken in October, 67 percent favored military action to remove Hussein. But 54 percent still supported it if there would be substantial U.S. military casualties, and 49 percent if there were substantial Iraqi civilian losses.

Before commencing an attack, Taylor said, Bush would have to provide the same kind of stark evidence of Iraqi capabilities and intentions as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson did in 1962 when he showed the Security Council photos of Soviet missiles being moved into Cuba.

"In Europe, no one wants to go to war in Iraq," said Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies and a former British army major. "Americans don't want to do it. They will do it if they feel they have to and it's in their national interest. But they don't actually want to do it."

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