Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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January 27, 2003

Deliberate Iraqi Flooding Could Channel Invasion Forces

Analysis. By GIS Staff. Analysis of potential invasion routes into southern Iraq in an anticipated US-led war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein indicates that a strong prospect exists for deliberate flooding of significant territory by Iraqi forces in order to channel invading forces into predeterminable killing zones. While there are clearly key military objectives for invading forces in Western Iraq — where extensive forces are deployed in preparation to move against Israel — and around the northern oilfields, the key military objectives of the Coalition would be the national command centers in the region of Baghdad.

There are three main avenues of approach for a US invasion force to move on Greater Baghdad: from the north, down the Tigris River; from the west, along the Euphrates River; and from the south, between the alluvial plain which connects the Tigris-Euphrates River valley. However, the main thrust into Iraq would likely be from the south (into the Hilla-Suweira-Kut defensive line), from staging areas in Kuwait. Analysis indicates that the invasion force would be approximately 70,000-80,000 troops, with significant armor and helicopter support. Air support would come from (as many as) four US carrier battle groups operating in the Persian Gulf, and hundreds of US Air Force fighters and bombers flying from newly expanded bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (in addition to long range support from the base on Diego Garcia), quite apart from any Allied land, naval and air power involvement.

It is widely accepted that the hardest fighting would be conducted in an urban environment in Baghdad, and possibly some of the corridor urban areas leading to itResearch indicates that it is also possible that any anticipated US-led mechanized blitzkrieg into southern Iraq could be severely thwarted by intentional flooding of the southern lowlands. Allied forces could be channeled into predetermined fire-sacks by “instant” impassable marshes and subjected to severe artillery/rocket fire and pre-positioned explosive devices. With the Western forces forte for maneuver warfare deleted, the playing field could conceivably be leveled in favor of the Iraqi forces. The terrain of the vast Iraqi lowlands is considered “Slow Go” at best by most military sources during the dry season. When flooded this terrain reverts to “No Go”. Reporting indicates that most Iraqi troop movements in these areas are observed only on the roads. 

Ø       The goal of Coalition forces would be to seize Iraqi territory, mainly Shi’a tribal lands, south of the Shatt al-Arab estuary, and up to the southern banks of the Tigris river as far north as the city of Karbala.

Ø       The speed with which the invading forces could effectively defeat the Iraqi forces and conquer territory which encompasses Iraq’s only outlet to the sea ( the port city of Basra and the oil production fields at Ramallah), would be the milestone by which (according to French, and Israeli intelligence services), a transitional government drawn from the ranks of the Iraqi opposition could be installed in Basra.

Iraq has a long history of successful water displacement operations and first utilized the techniques of flooding to gain tactical advantage and to channel enemy forces during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqis have utilized water inundation techniques to create localized, tactical flooding and  transform an area into an obstacle to stop an enemy advance. It is important to note that while epic flooding by destruction of Iraq’s dams such as the Sâmarrâ’ Dam, while debated by Western intelligence, is apparently not considered a viable threat. Iraq’s expertise in water-control technique is best exemplified by its ability to drain its southern marshes after the 1991 Gulf War (all of which can be effectively re-flooded within 48 hours).

Ø      After the Gulf War ended in 1991, the Iraqi Administration of Saddam Hussein began an ambitious civil engineering project aimed at deliberately draining the marshes to permit military access and greater political control of the Marsh Arabs (Ma’dan). The systematic draining of the land followed a 1991 uprising by Shi’a Muslims in southern Iraq which was immediately crushed by Iraqi forces.

Ø      The encirclement and destruction of the Marsh Arabs and the annihilation of their 5,000-year-old culture was brought about by the deliberate draining of their unique habitat, the 6,000 square mile marshes of south Iraq. Huge tracts of the marshes had been drained; using great earth barriers to block the tributaries of the Tigris which feed the Amara marshes; damming the Euphrates below Nassiriya. Satellite photographs have shown the big lakes shrunken and a 1,000 sq.mile rectangle of marsh dried out north of Qurna and west of the Amara-Basra highway (within the central Marshland area, a large, formerly permanent lake, Haur Zikri, appeared on satellite imagery to be “desiccated and covered with a salt crust”. The most easterly of the central marshes, Al Azair and Al Jazair, had been completely reclaimed).

Ø      By 1993, Iraq was able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the Marshlands; the flow of the Euphrates River had been almost entirely diverted to the so-called Third River Canal, bypassing most of the marshes; and the flow of the Tigris River had been channeled into tributary rivers, their artificially high banks prohibiting water from seeping into the Marshlands.

Iraq’s inundation warfare doctrine required extensive preparation in peacetime to ensure its successful implementation. Engineers studied the natural flow of Iraq’s major rivers (quantity of water entering, and the time, water level, and duration of high tide). The engineers also established the boundaries of the planned inundation area and constructed barriers and embankments to contain water and dredged numerous feeder canals to constructed to convey water from the water source to the ground to be inundated. The flooding itself is regulated by a series of irrigation canals, feeder canals, levies, and manmade mobile obstacles (ie: steel cages filled with rocks or concrete blocks and transported by trucks, cranes or end-loaders).

Ø       Analysis indicates that Iraqi inundation operations state that the flooding should not exceed  a depth of two feet. Research indicates that extensive studies by Iraqi engineers concluded that it is much more difficult for the enemy to cross muddy terrain (more time and muscular effort required),  than water (which is more easily forded).

Flooded areas would not block a determined enemy and it is highly doubtful whether the use of any water inundation techniques/operations would affect the outcome of an US-led invasion of southern Iraq.  It would, however, hamper their ability to maneuver and most probably would enable the Iraqi forces to inflict more casualties.