Kevin Woods, James Lacey, Williamson Murray. Foreign Affairs. Volume 85, Issue 3. May/June 2006.
Throughout the years of relative external peace for Iraq after Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, Saddam Hussein continued to receive and give credence to optimistic assessments of his regime’s prospects dished up by his top military officers. Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz described the dictator as having been “very confident” that the United States would not dare to attack Iraq, and that if it did, it would be defeated. What was the source of Saddam’s confidence?
Judging from his private statements, the single most important element in Saddam’s strategic calculus was his faith that France and Russia would prevent an invasion by the United States. According to Aziz, Saddam’s confidence was firmly rooted in his belief in the nexus between the economic interests of France and Russia and his own strategic goals: “France and Russia each secured millions of dollars worth of trade and service contracts in Iraq, with the implied understanding that their political posture with regard to sanctions on Iraq would be pro-Iraqi. In addition, the French wanted sanctions lifted to safeguard their trade and service contracts in Iraq. Moreover, they wanted to prove their importance in the world as members of the Security Council—that they could use their veto to show they still had power.”
Ibrahim Ahmad Abd al-Sattar, the Iraqi army and armed forces chief of staff, claimed that Saddam believed that even if his international supporters failed him and the United States did launch a ground invasion, Washington would rapidly bow to international pressure to halt the war. According to his personal interpreter, Saddam also thought his “superior” forces would put up “a heroic resistance and … inflict such enormous losses on the Americans that they would stop their advance.” Saddam remained convinced that, in his own words, “Iraq will not, in any way, be like Afghanistan. We will not let the war become a picnic for the American or the British soldiers. No way!”
When the coalition assault did come, Saddam stubbornly clung to the belief that the Americans would be satisfied with an outcome short of regime change. According to Sattar, “No Iraqi leaders had believed coalition forces would ever reach Baghdad.” Saddam’s conviction that his regime would survive the war was the primary reason he did not have his forces torch Iraq’s oil fields or open the dams to flood the south, moves many analysts predicted would be among Iraq’s first in the event of an invasion. In the words of Aziz, “[Saddam] thought that this war would not lead to this ending.” Saddam realized that if his strategic calculus was correct, he would need the oil to prop up the regime. Even with U.S. tanks crossing the Iraqi border, an internal revolt remained Saddam’s biggest fear. In order to quell any postwar revolt, he would need the bridges to remain intact and the land in the south to remain unflooded. On this basis, Saddam planned his moves.
Some senior Iraqi military officers did not share their leader’s assumptions, taking a more pessimistic view. The director of military intelligence, Zuhayr Talib Abd al-Sattar al-Naqib, commented that except for Saddam and the inner circle, most knowledgeable Iraqis secretly believed that the war would continue all the way to an occupation. The commander of the First Republican Guard Corps admitted, “There was nothing that could have been done to stop the Americans after they began.” Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, the minister of defense, recalled that “Iraqi military professionals were not surprised at U.S. actions at all. We knew what preparations were required, and what would happen if those preparations were not done properly… . Even if we had a real defense, we wouldn’t have stopped the Americans, but we would have made the price exaggerated.”
As late as the end of March 2003, Saddam apparently still believed that the war was going the way he had expected. If Iraq was not actually winning it, neither was it losing—or at least so it seemed to the dictator. Americans may have listened with amusement to the seemingly obvious fabrications of Muhammad Said al-Sahaf, Iraq’s information minister (nicknamed “Baghdad Bob” by the media). But the evidence now clearly shows that Saddam and those around him believed virtually every word issued by their own propaganda machine.
For example, during the first ten days of the war, Iraq asked Russia, France, and China not to support cease-fire initiatives because Saddam believed such moves would legitimize the coalition’s presence in Iraq. As late as March 30, Saddam thought that his strategy was working and that the coalition offensive was grinding to a halt. On that day, Lieutenant General Abed Hamid Mahmoud, Saddam’s principal secretary, directed the Iraqi foreign minister to tell the French and Russian governments that Baghdad would accept only an “unconditional withdrawal” of U.S. forces because “Iraq is now winning and … the United States has sunk in the mud of defeat.” At that moment, U.S. tanks were a hundred miles south of Baghdad, refueling and rearming for the final push.
By 2003, the Iraqi military was reeling from 13 years of almost continuous engagement with U.S. and British air forces, the accumulating effects of sanctions, and the insidious impact of the regime’s dysfunctional policies. These pressures had all helped drive the Iraqi military into a state of chronic decline. The Iraqi military’s main mission was to ensure the internal security of the Baathist dictatorship. Concerned about everything except fighting wars, the Iraqi military, which had once aspired to a Western-like profession of arms, became focused on militarily irrelevant—but nonetheless life-and-death—issues.
The best example of this focus is the prewar condition of the Iraqi air force, which did not launch a single sortie against the coalition during the invasion. According to the commander of Iraq’s air force and air defense force, Hamid Raja Shalah, Saddam simply decided two months before the war that the air force would not participate. Apparently, Saddam reasoned that the quality and quantity of the Iraqi air force’s equipment would make it worse than useless against coalition air forces. Consequently, he decided to save the air force for future needs and ordered his commanders to hide their aircraft. This decision was yet another indication that Saddam did not believe coalition ground forces would ever reach into the heart of Iraq. He was sure his regime would survive whatever conflict ensued.
To implement Saddam’s decision to preserve the air force, the Iraqis moved most of their aircraft away from operational airfields. To hide them from prowling coalition air forces, they camouflaged planes in palm groves or buried them in the sand, from which coalition forces dug them up after the war. Saddam’s refusal to use the Iraqi air force is reminiscent of his behavior during Desert Storm, when he ordered a significant portion of the air force to flee to Iran. In 2003, Saddam ruled out Iranian sanctuary, telling aides, “The Iranians are even stronger than before; they now have [part of] our air force.” Even with his regime under dire threat, Saddam’s thoughts were never far from the regional power balance.
When it came to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Saddam attempted to convince one audience that they were gone while simultaneously convincing another that Iraq still had them. Coming clean about WMD and using full compliance with inspections to escape from sanctions would have been his best course of action for the long run. Saddam, however, found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world.
Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians in 1987, was convinced Iraq no longer possessed WMD but claims that many within Iraq’s ruling circle never stopped believing that the weapons still existed. Even at the highest echelons of the regime, when it came to WMD there was always some element of doubt about the truth. According to Chemical Ali, Saddam was asked about the weapons during a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Command Council. He replied that Iraq did not have WMD but flatly rejected a suggestion that the regime remove all doubts to the contrary, going on to explain that such a declaration might encourage the Israelis to attack.
By late 2002, Saddam finally tilted toward trying to persuade the international community that Iraq was cooperating with UN inspectors and that it no longer had WMD programs. As 2002 drew to a close, his regime worked hard to counter anything that might be seen as supporting the coalition’s assertion that WMD still remained in Iraq. Saddam was insistent that Iraq would give full access to UN inspectors “in order not to give President Bush any excuses to start a war.” But after years of purposeful obfuscation, it was difficult to convince anyone that Iraq was not once again being economical with the truth.
Ironically, it now appears that some of the actions resulting from Saddam’s new policy of cooperation actually helped solidify the coalition’s case for war. Over the years, Western intelligence services had obtained many internal Iraqi communications, among them a 1996 memorandum from the director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service directing all subordinates to “insure that there is no equipment, materials, research, studies, or books related to manufacturing of the prohibited weapons (chemical, biological, nuclear, and missiles) in your site.” And when UN inspectors went to these research and storage locations, they inevitably discovered lingering evidence of WMD-related programs.
In 2002, therefore, when the United States intercepted a message between two Iraqi Republican Guard Corps commanders discussing the removal of the words “nerve agents” from “the wireless instructions,” or learned of instructions to “search the area surrounding the headquarters camp and [the unit] for any chemical agents, make sure the area is free of chemical containers, and write a report on it,” U.S. analysts viewed this information through the prism of a decade of prior deceit. They had no way of knowing that this time the information reflected the regime’s attempt to ensure it was in compliance with UN resolutions.
What was meant to prevent suspicion thus ended up heightening it. The tidbit about removing the term “nerve agents” from radio instructions was prominently cited as an example of Iraqi bad faith by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February 5, 2003, statement to the UN.
Another factor reduced Iraq’s military effectiveness: sanctions. For more than a dozen years, UN sanctions had frayed the fiber of the Iraqi military by making it difficult for Baghdad to purchase new equipment, procure spare parts, or fund adequate training. Attempts to overcome the effects of the sanctions led Saddam to create the Military Industrial Commission as a means to sustain the military. The commission and a series of subordinate organizations steadily promised new capabilities to offset the effects of poor training, poor morale, and neglected equipment. Saddam apparently waited for the delivery of wonder weapons that would reverse the erosion of his military strength.
A captured Military Industrial Commission annual report of investments made in 20023 showed more than 170 research projects with an estimated budget of about 1.5 percent of Iraq’s GDP. The commission divided projects among areas such as equipment, engineering, missiles, electronics, strategic weapons, artillery, and air forces. One senior Iraqi official alleged that the commission’s leaders were so fearful of Saddam that when he ordered them to initiate weapons programs that they knew Iraq could not develop, they told him they could accomplish the projects with ease. Later, when Saddam asked for updates on the nonexistent projects, they simply faked plans and designs to show progress.
This constant stream of false reporting undoubtedly accounts for why many of Saddam’s calculations on operational, strategic, and political issues made perfect sense to him. According to Aziz, “The people in the Military Industrial Commission were liars. They lied to you, and they lied to Saddam. They were always saying that they were producing or procuring special weapons so that they could get favors out of Saddam—money, cars, everything—but they were liars. If they did all of this business and brought in all of these secret weapons, why didn’t [the weapons] work?”
Members of the Military Industrial Commission were not the only liars. Bending the truth was particularly common among the most trusted members of Saddam’s inner circle—especially when negative news might reflect poorly on the teller’s abilities or reputation. According to one former high-ranking Baath Party official, “Saddam had an idea about Iraq’s conventional and potential unconventional capabilities, but never an accurate one because of the extensive lying occurring in that area. Many reports were falsified. The ministers attempted to convey a positive perspective with reports, which were forwarded to Saddam’s secretary, who in turn passed them up to Saddam.” In the years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, everyone around Saddam understood that his need to hear only good news was constantly growing and that it was in their best interest to feed that hunger.
A 1982 incident vividly illustrated the danger of telling Saddam what he did not want to hear. At one low point during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam asked his ministers for candid advice. With some temerity, the minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, suggested that Saddam temporarily step down and resume the presidency after peace was established. Saddam had him carted away immediately. The next day, pieces of the minister’s chopped-up body were delivered to his wife. According to Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaysh, the head of the Military Industrial Commission and a relative of the murdered minister, “This powerfully concentrated the attention of the other ministers, who were unanimous in their insistence that Saddam remain in power.”
Within the Iraqi military and the Iraqi regime more generally, rumors circulated that summary execution awaited anyone who dared contradict the dictator. Officers remembered the story of the brigadier general who once spent over a year in prison for daring to suggest that U.S. tanks might be superior to those of the Iraqi army. One senior minister noted, “Directly disagreeing with Saddam Hussein’s ideas was unforgivable. It would be suicide.” Nor was Saddam alone in his distaste for bad news. According to Major General Hamid Ismail Dawish al-Rubai, the director general of the Republican Guard’s general staff, “Any commander who spoke the truth to [Saddam’s son] Qusay would lose his head.”
Fear of Saddam’s reaction to bad news was not limited to his ministers and soldiers. Its pernicious effects reached even into Saddam’s immediate family. One former high-level official related the following story about Qusay: “At the end of 2000, it came to Saddam’s attention that approximately seventy military vehicles were immobile. Saddam told Qusay to resolve the problem. Republican Guard mechanics claimed they could repair the vehicles if the funds were made available. Qusay agreed to the work, and funds were provided for the task. Once the work was completed, Qusay sent a representative to inspect the vehicles and he found them lined up on a vehicle park, thirty-five vehicles on each side. The vehicles looked like new, having been freshly painted and cleaned”.
“After Qusay’s representative inspected them, a second inspection was conducted to verify that they were now operational. The staff was told to supply drivers to move all [the] vehicles to the opposite side of the vehicle park to ensure they were in working order. None of the seventy vehicles would start. When this was reported to Qusay, he instructed that Saddam not be informed, as Qusay had already told Saddam that the vehicles were operational. “In the end, Qusay did not order mechanics to fix the vehicles—it appears that he was eager only to hide this failure from his father.
Besides outright lying, there were further impediments to the flow of information within the regime. One was the requirement to embellish even the simplest message with praise for Saddam, as evidenced by the minister of defense’s memo following a training exercise called Golden Falcon: “In reference to your Excellency’s instructions regarding the large exercises at the Public Center, having strong faith in the only God of our hearts, and God’s permanent support to the believers, the faithful, the steadfast, and with great love that we have for our great homeland and our Great Leader, our Great Leader has won God’s favor and the love of his dear people in the day of the grand homage.
“Your enthusiastic soldiers from our courageous armed forces have executed Golden Falcon Exercise number 11. In this exercise we have tested our readiness and confrontation plans against any who attempt to make impure the lands of civilization and the homeland of missions and prophets. This exercise is the widest and most successful in achieving the required results. Soldiers from the III and IV Corps have participated in this exercise. “There is no indication that the two corps actually conducted any significant exercise during this period.
This kind of bureaucratic embellishment extended to every level of military organization. While this type of flowery language is not unknown in the region, it was taken to such extremes in Iraq that it often replaced all substance in reports and orders. For example, a March 9, 2003, instruction from the Imam al Hussein Brigade to one of its combat groups read, “The Third Group, al Quds Army … and other formations attached to it are fighting valiantly, placing their trust in God Almighty, until the end that He prescribes, which God willing will be the enemy’s defeat and his withdrawal, and a victory for us that will please our friends and grieve our enemies.”
After the war, several of the more capable military commanders commonly noted four other factors that seriously affected military readiness: the mostly irrelevant military guidance passed from the political leadership to the lowest level of military operations, the creation of “popular” militias, the tendency of Saddam’s relatives and sycophants to rise to the top national security positions, and the combined effects of the onerous security apparatus and the resulting limitations on military authority. Many senior Iraqi military officers blamed this “coup-proofing” of the regime for most of what befell the Iraqi army during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A close associate once described Saddam as a deep thinker who lay awake at night pondering problems at length before inspiration came to him in dreams. These dreams became dictates the next morning, and invariably all those around Saddam would praise his great intuition. Questioning his dictates brought great personal risk. Often, the dictator would make a show of consulting small groups of family members and longtime advisers, although his record even here is erratic. All of the evidence demonstrates that he made his most fateful decisions in isolation. He decided to invade Iran, for example, without any consultation with his advisers and while he was visiting a vacation resort. He made the equally fateful decision to invade Kuwait after discussing it with only his son-in-law.
In a wide-ranging discussion with his closest advisers in the fall of 1990, Saddam provided an insight into his “unique” abilities: “America is a complicated country. Understanding it requires a politician’s alertness that is beyond the intelligence community. Actually, I forbade the intelligence outfits from deducing from press and political analysis anything about America. I told them that [this] was not their specialty, because these organizations, when they are unable to find hard facts, start deducing from newspapers, which is what I already know. I said I don’t want either intelligence organization [the Iraqi Intelligence Service or the General Military Intelligence Directorate] to give me analysis—that is my specialty … We agree to continue on that basis … which is what I used with the Iranians, some of it out of deduction and some of it through invention and connecting the dots, all without having hard evidence.”
After 1991, Saddam’s confidence in his military commanders steadily eroded, while his confidence in his own abilities as a military genius strengthened. Like a number of other despots in history who dabbled in military affairs, Saddam began to issue a seemingly endless stream of banal instructions. He could not resist giving detailed training guidance.
Dozens of surviving memoranda echo the style and content of a 2002 top-secret document titled “Training Guidance to the Republican Guard.” These documents all hint at the kind of guidance military officers received from Saddam on a regular basis. One chapter of the “training guidance” document, called “Notes and Directions Given by Saddam Hussein to His Elite Soldiers to Cover the Tactics of War,” charged officers to do the following: “Train in a way that allows you to defeat your enemy; train all units’ members in swimming; train your soldiers to climb palm trees so that they may use these places for navigation and sniper shooting; and train on smart weapons.”
In the aftermath of the 1991 war, the Iraqi military made extensive efforts to “learn” from its experiences during Desert Storm. These attempts were hampered by Saddam’s conviction that his ground forces had performed well in the fighting. This certainty forced officers compiling Iraqi lessons-learned analyses to avoid issues that might involve Saddam’s prestige or question the Iraqi forces’ fighting abilities. Instead, they focused on peripheral issues that were almost totally irrelevant to winning wars. These restrictions led to some perverse claims, such as that the Republican Guard had actually performed well in the war by avoiding annihilation: “If it were not for these precautions, we would have suffered great loss, but when we compare our losses with the large number of fighter aircraft, missiles, and artillery bombing that the Iraqi army was subject to we find these losses trifling. That proved that the Republican Guards and the armed forces managed to reduce the danger from air strikes.” Such briefings drove home the point that Iraq had done well in Desert Storm (at least on the issues that mattered most to the regime). In a short time, the constant praise for Iraq’s tactics during the war—digging deep bunkers and dispersing and hiding the Iraqi army—made them into de facto operational doctrine.
Little evidence exists that any of the politicized Iraqi generals understood the advantages in maneuverability, speed, command and control, or training that the U.S. forces enjoyed. By the time the military was ready to brief Saddam on the lessons of the Persian Gulf War, however, they did fully understand the danger of presenting him with claims other than those he already believed. Truthful analyses therefore gave way to belittlement of the U.S. victory and denials that the United States had any advantage over Iraq other than in military technology. One comment made by an Iraqi general during a mid-1990s conference was typical: “After the liberation of our land in Kuwait, and despite the fact that more than 30 countries headed by the occupation forces of the U.S. rushed madly upon our Republican Guard, our performance was heroic.”
The Rise of Paramilitary Forces
It is hard to overestimate the effects that the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of 1991 had on Saddam’s outlook. After that point, the threat of another uprising consistently remained his top security concern. One of the precautions he took to prevent and, if necessary, quell a future disturbance was to create private armies made up of politically reliable troops: the Saddam Fedayeen, the al Quds Army, and the Baath Party militia. Ironically, these organizations actually worsened national security by making army recruitment more difficult and by stripping the military of needed equipment. And when they eventually went to battle against the onrushing coalition forces, they were obliterated in short order.
Most Western analysts have argued that Saddam created these militias to help defend Iraq from external attack. Documents obtained after Operation Iraqi Freedom, however, indicate that the original and primary purpose of the paramilitary forces had little to do with protecting Iraq from invasion. The militias were indeed charged with that task—but only later on, after Saddam became fascinated with the success of the Palestinian intifadas and with the U.S. experience in Somalia. The original and primary purpose of the paramilitary groups was to defend Iraq from internal enemies, not external ones.
The al Quds Army (“al Quds” is Arabic for “Jerusalem”) was a regional militia created to control particular areas of Iraq and crush as rapidly as possible any disturbance that occurred. The best evidence suggests that close to 500,000 Iraqis joined the al Quds force, albeit with widely varying degrees of commitment. As to its value as a military force in times of war, the minister of defense best expressed the view of his colleagues when he said, “The Quds force was a headache, they had no equipment for a serious war, and their creation was a bad idea. The Ministry of Defense was required to give them weapons that were taken from the real army. But the army had no control of them. Their instructions came only from the president’s office and not from normal military channels.”
According to another senior Iraqi general, the al Quds Army was not a serious combat force: “It never had anything to do with the liberation of Jerusalem or fighting the Zionists, and was merely another organ of regime protection.” Nonetheless, once the war began, Saddam’s flattery machine cranked out boasts, half-truths, and outright lies about the abilities and performance of the al Quds force. Saddam fully expected the militia’s members to fight like lions and to bleed the Americans dry, and no one was courageous enough to tell him when they failed to do so. Reports such as this one, from a public release by the Iraqi army’s general command, were typical: “A hostile force backed by jet fighters and helicopters attempted to approach the outskirts of the al Muthanna Governate. Our unrivaled men of the al Quds Army confronted it and forced it to stop and then retreat. They inflicted on it huge human and equipment losses. This included the destruction of seven vehicles of various types. Congratulations to the al Quds Army on its absolute victory over the allies of the wicked Zionists.” That this event never happened as described was immaterial to the Baathist command. The reality that Saddam’s inner circle refused to tell him was that the al Quds force started dissolving as soon as U.S. tanks approached. By the time coalition forces arrived at many of the militia’s defensive positions, Saddam’s vaunted warriors had vanished.
Whereas the al Quds Army was a part-time territorial defense force meant for use in times of crisis, the Saddam Fedayeen was a permanent force tasked with a number of state security missions. Before the war, coalition planners believed that the Saddam Fedayeen was a paramilitary group with wide-ranging missions including counterinsurgency, domestic direct action, and surveillance. They also understood that it would serve as a backup to the regular army and the al Quds Army in case of a local uprising. Such assessments were generally correct but somewhat out of focus.
It is now clear that Saddam created the Fedayeen in October 1994 in reaction to the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings of March 1991. Those revolts had revealed the potentially fatal flaws in Saddam’s internal security apparatus: the local Baath Party organs were not capable of putting down uprisings without external support, the Iraqi armed forces were unable or unwilling to suppress rebellions with sufficient speed and ruthlessness, and the tribes of Iraq still represented a significant threat to Baghdad’s control, even after more than 25 years of pan-Arabic socialist indoctrination. The fanatically loyal Saddam Fedayeen was created to remedy such problems and ensure that any future revolt would be rapidly crushed.
According to Saddam Fedayeen planning documents captured by the coalition, the mission of this militia was to protect Iraq “from any threats inside and outside.” Meticulous Saddam Fedayeen records list numerous operations conducted in the decade after the militia’s creation: “extermination operations” against saboteurs in Muthanna, an operation to “ambush and arrest” car thieves in Anbar, the monitoring of Shiite civilians at the holy places of Karbala, and a plan to bomb a humanitarian-aid outpost in Erbil, which the Iraqi secret police suspected of being a Western intelligence operation.
The Saddam Fedayeen also took part in the regime’s domestic terrorism operations and planned for attacks throughout Europe and the Middle East. In a document dated May 1999, Saddam’s older son, Uday, ordered preparations for “special operations, assassinations, and bombings, for the centers and traitor symbols in London, Iran and the self-ruled areas [Kurdistan].” Preparations for “Blessed July,” a regime-directed wave of “martyrdom” operations against targets in the West, were well under way at the time of the coalition invasion.
In a typical Iraqi pattern, corruption soon worked its way into the Saddam Fedayeen. Despite enjoying regular showers of cash, on-the-spot bonuses for successful missions, educational benefits, military privileges if injured, martyr privileges if killed, and free land just for volunteering, a number of Saddam Fedayeen paramilitaries still joined the growing underground economy. In 2001, reports surfaced that members of the organization were smuggling weapons to the Saudi border, where they sold them for cash, and were establishing roadblocks in order to shake down travelers.
These failures of discipline elicited a harsh response from the regime. Punishments of errant militiamen included having one’s hands amputated for theft, being tossed off a tower for sodomy, being whipped a hundred times for sexual harassment, having one’s tongue cut out for lying, and being stoned for various other infractions. It was only a matter of time before military failure also became punishable as a criminal offense.
In typical Iraqi bureaucratic fashion, a table of specific failures and their punishments was created and approved. In 1998, the secretariat of the Saddam Fedayeen issued the following “regulations for when an execution order against the commanders of the various Fedayeen” units should be carried out: “Any section commander will be executed, if his section is defeated; any platoon commander will be executed, if two of his sections are defeated; any company commander will be executed, if two of his platoons are defeated; any regiment commander will be executed, if two of his companies are defeated; any area commander will be executed, if his Governate is defeated; any Saddam Fedayeen fighter, including commanders, will be executed, if he hesitates in completing his duties, cooperates with the enemy, gives up his weapons, or hides any information concerning the security of the state.” No wonder that members of the Saddam Fedayeen often proved to be Iraq’s most fanatical fighters during the 2003 war. On numerous occasions, Fedayeen forces hurled themselves against the coalition’s armored columns as they rushed past the southern cities of Samawah, Najaf, and Karbala, and they even tried to block the coalition from entering Baghdad itself—long after the Republican Guard had mostly quit the field. In the years preceding the coalition invasion, Iraq’s leaders had become enamored of the belief that the spirit of the Fedayeen’s “Arab warriors” would allow them to overcome the Americans’ advantages. In the end, however, the Fedayeen fighters proved totally unprepared for the kind of war they were asked to fight, and they died by the thousands.
Relatives and Sycophants
Saddam truly trusted only one person: himself. As a result, he concentrated more and more power in his own hands. No single man could do everything, however; forced to enlist the help of others to handle operational details, Saddam used a remarkable set of hiring criteria. As one senior Iraqi leader noted, Saddam selected the “uneducated, untalented, and those who posed no threat to his leadership for key roles.” Always wary of a potential coup, Saddam remained reluctant to entrust military authority to anyone too far removed from his family or tribe.
Western observers may have considered the Republican Guard to be a bulwark of the regime, but Saddam saw it as the military force best positioned to overthrow him. As a result, in 2001 he placed Qusay at its head, making his youngest son the commander of Iraq’s most elite combat units—even though Qusay’s military experience was limited to a short stint at the Iranian front in 1984, where he had experienced little if any real combat. The minister of defense described the situation this way: “My working for Qusay Hussein was a mistake; Qusay knew nothing—he understood only simple military things like a civilian. We prepared information and advice for him and he’d accept it or not. As the ultimate commander of the Republican Guard, Qusay could take advice from professional military officers in the Ministry of Defense and the Republican Guard or ignore it to make decisions.” Qusay had the final say on significant military decisions unless Saddam himself chose to intervene. Qusay’s purview included such fundamental matters as what key terrain to defend and, during the war, when and how to shift Iraq’s remaining forces. Several senior officers privately questioned many of his decisions, but few were willing to do so in an open forum.
After the war, senior military officers constantly remarked on Qusay’s lack of military knowledge and his unwillingness to take their “good” advice. But even these flaws were not sufficient to explain everything that went wrong. The evidence shows that many of Qusay’s advisers were also unqualified, while those who were qualified often kept silent even when given an opportunity to speak.
Major General Barzan Abd al-Ghafur Sulayman Majid, commander of the Special Republican Guard, was fairly representative. Before the war, coalition planners generally assumed that the quality of Iraqi military officers improved as one moved up the military hierarchy, from the militias to the regular army, to the Republican Guard, and then to the Special Republican Guard. It stood to reason that the commander of the Special Republican Guard—Iraq’s most elite fighting force—would be highly competent and loyal. In fact, after the war, Barzan’s peers and colleagues were all openly derisive of his abilities. Saddam had selected Barzan, one general noted, because Barzan had several qualities that Saddam held dear. “He was Saddam’s cousin, but he had two other important qualities which made him the best man for the job,” this general said. “First, he was not intelligent enough to represent a threat to the regime, and second, he was not brave enough to participate in anyone else’s plots.”
Barzan himself was well aware of the tenuous nature of his position. In an interview after the war, he described his appointment: “I was called to Baghdad from holiday and told that I would be taking command of the Special Republican Guard. I was on a probationary status for the first six months. I was ordered by Saddam to take the command; I had no choice. I was sick at the idea of being the Special Republican Guard commander. It was the most dangerous job in the regime.” This general, the man who was to command the last stand of Saddam’s most impressive military forces, spent most of the war hiding.
General Tai, the minister of defense, was a striking exception to this rule. Here, by all accounts, was a competent military commander. His elevation to minister of defense apparently changed him, however. The specific reasons for his change are no doubt complex, but his actions during the meetings and planning conferences prior to the coalition invasion suggest an explanation. In one telling event during the final planning, he remained silent when more junior officers voiced concerns over Saddam’s new plan for the defense of Iraq. As one corps commander who was there later noted, “Some of the senior military leaders present only competed to please Saddam. The Minister of Defense was an honorable man but he gave up his strategic vision in order to keep Saddam’s favor.”
At the end of 2002, Saddam once again asserted himself, putting into place his own operational concept for Iraq’s defense—a concept that would ultimately hasten the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces. On December 18, the chief of staff of the Republican Guard gathered his commanders together and told them of the new plan. It was both original and bold—and totally impractical. In a postwar interview, the commander of the Second Republican Guard Corps told how the new plan was announced: “The Republican Guard chief of staff called all the commanders to meet at the Republican Guard Command Center. When I asked why, I was told that they had a new plan for the defense of Baghdad. I thought to myself that we were supposed to be defending all of Iraq, not just Baghdad. When we got there, we found that Qusay Hussein was also present.
“The Republican Guard chief of staff briefed us in front of a large wall map that covered just the central portion of Iraq. The map showed Baghdad in the center with four rings. Every ring had a color. The center ring was red. Approximately ten kilometers out from the red ring was a blue ring. Then approximately seven kilometers out from that one was a black ring. Finally, the last circle was marked in yellow, which was designated for reconnaissance forces only. The Republican Guard chief of staff explained the plan in a very crude and ugly way. Things like ‘the Republican Guard Hammurabi Division defends in the north of the city, the Republican Guard Medina Division in the south, the Republican Guard al Nida Division in the east, and special forces and the Special Republican Guard in the west.’
“When the Americans arrived at the first ring, on the order from Saddam, the forces would conduct a simultaneous withdrawal. The units would then repeat this ‘procedure’ until reaching the red circle. Once in the red circle, the remaining units would fight to the death.
“With this incredible simplicity and stupidity, the assembled Republican Guard officers were told that this was the plan for the defense of our country. Qusay said that the plan was already approved by Saddam and ‘it was you who would now make it work.’ I disagreed and told Qusay that a proud army with an 82-year history cannot fight like this. We were not using our experience. I was told by Qusay that there would be no changes because Saddam had signed the plan already.”
Compared to previous defense arrangements drawn up by professional military staffs, this new plan was amateurish. It paid no attention to basic military factors, such as geography, nor did it explain how all the units would be able to retreat simultaneously from one ring to the next while being engaged on the ground and assaulted from the air. Even after Qusay and the Republican Guard’s chief of staff briefed their officers on the concept, the senior military leadership did little to arrange for it to be implemented. For Saddam, issuing a decree was considered enough to make the plan work.
Security and Command Limitations
While most of Iraq’s senior military leaders fell prey to the corrupting influences of the regime’s inner circle, other factors combined to undermine the effectiveness of subordinate leaders and units. The commander of the Baghdad Division of the Republican Guard provided an example of how hard it was to function: “In the Republican Guard, division and corps commanders could not make decisions without the approval of the staff command. Division commanders could only move small elements within their command. Major movements such as brigade-sized elements and higher had to be requested through the corps commander to the staff command. This process did not change during the war and in fact became more centralized.”
Every senior commander interviewed after hostilities emphasized the psychological costs of being forced to constantly look over his shoulder. At any one time, each of these military commanders had to contend with at least five major security organizations, including the Special Security Office, the Iraqi Intelligence Service, the General Military Intelligence Directorate, and various security service offices within the Republican Guard bureaucracy. Moreover, the number of security personnel in each of these organizations increased dramatically after 1991. In many cases, new spies were sent to units to report on the spies already there.
The Second Republican Guard Corps commander described the influence of the internal security environment on a typical corps-level staff meeting: “First a meeting would be announced and all the corps-level staff, the subordinate division commanders, and selected staff, as well as supporting or attached organizations and their staffs, would assemble at the corps headquarters. The corps commander had to ensure then that all the spies were in the room before the meeting began so that there would not be any suspicions in Baghdad as to my purpose. This kind of attention to my own internal security was required. I spent considerable time finding clever ways to invite even the spies I was not supposed to know about.” The target of all of this internal spying, the corps commander, was forced to coordinate the surreptitious activities of the various persons spying on him. If he accidentally excluded any of these spies from a “secret” meeting, it could provoke intense, quite possibly dangerous, suspicion in Baghdad.
Such a lack of trust had a direct effect not only on the ability of commanders to lead their units, but also on the ability of units to take advantage of their knowledge of the ground to prepare optimal defenses. In many cases, staff officers in Baghdad who had never visited particular areas still were the ones who gave precise deployment directions for even the smallest units.
The commander of the Second Republican Guard Corps echoed the problems described by the commander of the Baghdad Division: “I had to ask for permission from the Republican Guard staff in Baghdad to move brigade-size units and was still doing so up until April 2 and 3 .” By then, coalition forces were making their final drive toward Baghdad.
Not quite every commander had to endure such restrictions. Leaders of the al Nida Division, for example—an armored division of the Republic Guard—enjoyed unusual liberty. Tasked with defending Baghdad’s eastern approaches against possible attacks from Iran, the al Nida Division was considered by both Iraqi and coalition intelligence organizations to be the best of the best. According to the division’s chief of staff, its materiel readiness was the best in the Iraqi military, and its commander planned and conducted training virtually independent of any higher authority. Such autonomy was unheard of elsewhere, including in al Nida’s sister unit, the Baghdad Division. When asked in a postwar interview to explain the disparity between the authority he exercised and that exercised by other divisional commanders, al Nida’s commander answered in an incredulous tone, “I am a Tikriti [from Saddam’s hometown] and other commanders were not.”
Yet constant surveillance was the rule. As one officer explained, “All phones in the Republican Guard office were monitored and all meetings were recorded. High-ranking officers were subjected to constant technical monitoring and surveillance in and out of their homes. The Republican Guard Security Office monitored all aspects of senior Republican Guard officers’ lives, including their financial affairs and diet. Republican Guard Security Office personnel even questioned the guards at senior officers’ houses to see what they could learn about the officers’ lifestyles. The Special Security Office knew how many times I went to the bathroom. Republican Guard commanders were not trusted to conduct any movement or even so much as start a tank without permission. Requesting retirement was impossible because the regime would assume one opposed them politically, and one would be arrested and jailed.”
There were two common reactions to the pervasive security apparatus. The first was to work through the fog of suspicion and maintain as open a process as possible, while still attempting to command a military unit on the brink of war. Operating in this manner often required extreme precautions. The commander of the Second Republican Guard Corps, for instance, held most of his private meetings in the walled garden of a private home where he could be relatively sure that the regime’s spies could not eavesdrop on him. The second reaction, more common among senior leaders, was to avoid any actions, activities, or circumstances that might invite suspicion from the various “eyes” of the regime.
The net effect of such reactions was that corps-level operational command and control disappeared from the battlefield. The restrictions imposed on Iraq’s officers during peacetime and the general atmosphere of fear made it impossible to coordinate action during war. By consistently sacrificing military effectiveness for the supposedly more important needs of internal security, the regime effectively neutered its military, which ultimately proved incapable of standing up to the disciplined and competent coalition forces.
In the end, Saddam determined that the most important factor for military success lay in the sprit of the warrior. Saddam considered instilling ideological commitment to the Baathist cause to be the best way to prepare Iraq’s soldiers for war. Saddam told his officers that Allah wanted to insult the United States by giving his strongest personal abilities to the materially weak Iraqis. Because Saddam perceived the Baathist spirit of the Iraqi warrior to be far superior to anything American soldiers were capable of bringing to the battlefield, he overlooked the many factors eroding the foundation of his military’s effectiveness.
The conclusion of an Iraqi training manual sums up the regime’s attitude. “Military power,” it reads, “is measured by the period in which difficulties become severe, calamities increase, choices multiply, and the world gets dark and nothing remains except the bright light of belief and ideological determination. . . . If [a soldier] ignores [his] values, principles, and ideals, all military foundations [will] collapse. He will be defeated, shamed, and [his] military honor will remain in the same place together with the booty taken by the enemy. The President, the Leader Saddam Hussein asks, ‘Would men allow for their military honor to be taken by the enemy as booty from the battle?’ “Iraq’s was not the first army to place “spirit” over the reality of firepower and steel, and it is unlikely to be the last.
Much of the debate on the origins of the postwar insurgency in Iraq has centered on the question of whether Saddam’s regime placed munitions around the country to support a future guerrilla war against an external foe. There is no significant documentary evidence to suggest it did so. Rather, what is clear is that the regime ordered the distribution of ammunition in order to preserve it for a prolonged war with coalition forces.
As far as can be determined from the interviews and records reviewed so far, there was no national plan to embark on a guerrilla war in the event of a military defeat. Nor did the regime appear to cobble together such a plan as its world crumbled around it. Buoyed by his earlier conviction that the Americans would never dare enter Baghdad, Saddam hoped to the very last minute that he could stay in power. And his military and civilian bureaucrats went through their daily routines until the very end.
Only slowly did Saddam and those around him finally seem to realize that they were suffering a catastrophic military defeat. In the regime’s final days, the only decisive actions those at the top seemed capable of were attempts to stem the flow of bad news. For instance, a Ministry of Defense memorandum dated April 6 told subordinate units, “We are doing great,” and reminded all staff officers to “avoid exaggerating the enemy’s abilities.” By that point, Iraq’s military forces had already collapsed or were collapsing. Coalition attacks had destroyed almost all of the corps and division headquarters, and the few that remained had been rendered ineffective by the furious pace of the U.S. advance. Although some isolated Iraqi units continued to fight, they were no longer connected to a coherent military organization.
According to Deputy Prime Minister Aziz, by then even Saddam had finally accepted that the end was near. On that day, he called a meeting of the Iraqi leadership at a house in central Baghdad. During the meeting, according to Aziz, Saddam’s tone was that of a man “who had lost his will to resist” and “knew the regime was coming to an end.” Later that day, Saddam traveled to another safe house a few miles away (he changed locations every three to six hours). There he met with his personal secretary, his two sons, the minister of defense, and the chiefs of staff of the al Quds Army, the Republican Guard, and the Saddam Fedayeen. It was almost midnight, and according to those present, the combination of some accurate battlefield reports and Western satellite news broadcasts had finally made it impossible to ignore their dire predicament.
Yet Saddam began giving orders to deploy and maneuver formations that had ceased to exist. His attention focused on plans to have the Republican Guard enter Baghdad and join with the Saddam Fedayeen in “preparing” for urban warfare. Late the next day, Saddam met again with his closest advisers and, according to a participant, accepted that “the army divisions were no longer capable of defending Baghdad, and that he would have a meeting with the Baath Regional Commanders to enlist them in the final defense of the regime.” A subsequent meeting on the same day produced an unexecuted plan to divide Baghdad into four quadrants. Saddam placed loyal Baath Party stalwarts in command of each sector and charged them with defending the city to their last drops of blood.
By the time Saddam spoke to his military staff, however, a U.S. armored brigade had already captured Baghdad’s airport. As he discussed the plan for the final defense of the city, another brigade of U.S. armor was busily chewing up the manicured lawn in front of his central palace.