WASHINGTON -- Better weapons and training will help Americans if they are drawn into an urban war against Saddam Hussein, but averting civilian casualties among Iraqis will be hard, Army Secretary Thomas E. White said Thursday.
"You can look back through history to see that civilian casualties are very difficult to avoid, just because of the proximity of the combat activity to where people are living in these urban areas," he said.
Urban warfare may be necessary to meet President Bush's goal of removing Saddam from power. The Iraqi president has promised to take any war with the United States into his cities, and U.S. military and intelligence officials acknowledge that combat in Baghdad's neighborhoods may be Saddam's best chance to counter some of America's military advantages.
In a meeting with reporters Thursday, White declined to talk specifically about U.S. war plans for Iraq.
"I'll just say the Army's ready," White said. "That's our job, to be ready, and the Army's ready."
Fighting in cities is costly to both armies and civilians. A defending force can chose from a host of hiding place -- buildings, rooftops, cellars. Artillery bombardment and precision airstrikes -- key to American military superiority -- carry the potential for heavy civilian casualties and damage.
White noted the difference in training for such warfare today compared with a decade ago, saying said the Defense Department now has excellent facilities for training troops in urban fighting on a number of bases -- not just at its major training centers.
"They're really big league facilities," he said.
New technology also gives the soldier better intelligence and night-vision weapons to use in urban fighting.
"There are all sorts of things coming along in the munitions area that will help us operate in urban terrain as well," White said. "So there's a great deal of technology that's being applied to make the individual soldier more effective in what is a very complicated and dangerous environment."