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Casualty aversion is Saddam's greatest weapon

By John Chalmers

Click to enlarge photo

AS SAYLIYA CAMP, Qatar (Reuters) - On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War Iraqi President Saddam Hussein told the U.S. charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson: "Yours is a society that can't take 10,000 casualties."

Saddam lost the war. But he was right, and as he faces off with the United States again he is making the same calculation.

"The 1991 Gulf War created unrealistic expectations for low casualties in warfare, not only among the public but also among the military establishment," Michael Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor wrote in "The Generals' War".

"One question raised by the Gulf War is whether commanders can be ruthless enough to pursue the enemy to the limit in the television age when the stakes are less than national survival."

The fiercest fighting so far in the latest U.S.-led offensive against Iraq left less than a dozen U.S. soldiers dead -- but "heavy casualties" were widely reported in the media.

"That's what Saddam wants to hear because Saddam believes that we do consider 10 or 12 casualties heavy casualties and we won't be willing to take large numbers of casualties," said Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

"For Saddam, 10,000 casualties in a day might be heavy casualties," he told a roundtable on the war in Washington.


Aversion to casualties has been a U.S. combat priority since the grinding Vietnam War ended three decades ago with 58,000 Americans dead.

A bloody tangle in Mogadishu 10 years ago reinforced an overriding concern to minimise the risks to U.S. soldiers.

Dramatised in the film "Black Hawk Down", the Mogadishu battle broke out when Somalis downed a U.S. helicopter on a mission to capture a local warlord and attacked U.S. troops sent to rescue their comrades. Eighteen Americans died and one of the bodies was dragged in triumph through the streets.

NATO's 1999 Kosovo air campaign -- which saw more than 10,000 bombing sorties over 78 days without one combat casualty on the side of the attackers -- appeared to usher in a new age of surgical warfare which needed no boots on the ground.

This was bolstered in 2001 when U.S. forces made extensive use of air power to bring down Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.

The total casualties among U.S.-led forces since the start of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" 11 days ago -- 59 killed and 15 missing -- is so far well short of the coalition forces' 358 dead in the 1990-91 war to oust Iraq from Kuwait.

"I think overall it's quite a low rate of fatalities and casualties," said Joanna Spear of King's College, London.

"The problem is that it's getting a lot of media attention and we're seeing very upset families who've got people missing or killed," she told BBC World television.

"It makes it more difficult for the politicians because they did promise a clean technical war that would be over quickly. The military didn't say that but nevertheless that was the message that got out."

Britain is perhaps more tolerant of military casualties, having endured decades of guerrilla fighting in Northern Ireland and the 1982 Falklands War, in which 236 servicemen died.

But, like the United States, it puts a high priority on minimising its own combat casualties and -- particularly in this war, which began with scant public support at home and outright hostility in the Arab world -- minimising civilian casualties.

Saddam knows this, and he is exploiting it.


William Hopkinson of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London said that because Saddam wants to influence opinion in the outside world, two explosions that killed dozens in Baghdad markets last week were "good propaganda" for him.

One of the biggest challenges for the U.S.-led forces as they seek to topple Saddam will be winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people; violent bombing that strikes homes and civilian infrastructure could make this all but impossible.

This is why the original U.S. plan was one of bypassing cities and "decapitation" of the government in Baghdad.

But U.S. and British troops have been drawn into urban areas into which Saddam has put his fiercest forces to fight with basic infantry weapons and guerrilla tactics.

"America hasn't really fought conflicts where tactics like suicide bombings would be a normal tactic of war," Spear said. "This is new to the Americans and there's a certain amount of naive outrage at what is being done."

There is a risk for Saddam, though, that he could mistake the U.S.-British anxiety about body bags as a lack of resolve.

"I think Saddam recognises that if we really are willing to close with him and come into Baghdad this will undermine...his critical assumption for the entire war, which is that we are just so casualty-averse we won't even try it," said Pollack.


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