March 21, 2003

March 21, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East

Saddam's Strategy: Holding Baghdad Hostage

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein undoubtedly knows that he cannot win a war against the vastly superior military forces of the United States, but he thinks he can deprive the Bush Administration of a political victory by driving up the political, military, economic, and humanitarian costs of such a war.

Saddam cannot outfight the United States but he hopes to outlast it by bogging it down in a bloody quagmire like the war in Vietnam, which is a constant reference in his thinking. Like Hitler, he thinks Americans are soft and cannot stomach casualties - American casualties or Iraqi civilian casualties. He probably perceives the US failure to finish him off after the 1991 Gulf War as a sign of weakness, not of restraint.

Saddam is rational, but only when it is understood that his ultimate goal is holding on to power, not defending the interests of the Iraqi people. Saddam knew he would lose the 1991 Gulf War, but probably believed that if he backed down and pulled out of Kuwait with his tail between his legs, he would be overthrown by his own army. Indeed, there were at least two reported military coup attempts in the year before he invaded Kuwait.

Saddam learned in the 1991 Gulf War that Iraq had little chance of defeating U.S. military forces in the open desert, because that left Iraqi forces vulnerable to superior American armor and overwhelming air power. This time around, the Iraqis have made little attempt to defend Iraq's borders, but have concentrated their best military units - the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard - in central Iraq close to Baghdad and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

American and British columns are now cutting through Iraq's soft peripheral defenses like a knife through butter. But as they approach Baghdad, Saddam likely plans to bog them down in urban street fighting. This not only will help neutralize American air power and armor columns, but also will generate greater American casualties. Moreover, such a strategy will generate more Iraqi civilian casualties, because Saddam's diehard troops will be entrenched inside the city amid a hostage civilian population.

Saddam hopes that his last stand will be broadcast live by the international media and will provoke a firestorm of political protest in the Arab world and strong international pressure to halt the U.S. offensive in its tracks. Such a strategy of using human shields helped Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to escape from Beirut after his terrorist forces were encircled and besieged by the Israelis in 1982 during the Israeli intervention in Lebanon. But holding Baghdad hostage cannot save Saddam now, only delay the inevitable.

The Bush Administration initially sought to defeat Saddam's human shield strategy by trying to eliminate the Iraqi dictator in a bold air and cruise missile strike at the outset of the war. This apparently failed and now American and British forces are streaming towards Baghdad for the final showdown with Saddam.


Speed is critical because allied forces need to overwhelm and disarm Iraq's military forces before they recover their balance and regroup for urban street fighting. The faster American forces can converge on Baghdad, the sooner Iraqi morale will collapse, and the faster Saddam's few remaining loyalists will desert his cause.  

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East