Does Iraq have a fighting army? This question has divided Iraq-watchers for weeks. Some experts see victory for the U.S.-led coalition as a matter of days. Others speculate about months, if not years, of urban guerilla warfare of the type practiced by the Somali warlords in the 1990s.
Both views could be described as extremes: one inspired by imprudent optimism, the other by unwarranted pessimism.
The first question to ponder is whether there is an Iraqi army. On paper, the answer is yes. The Iraqi army supposedly consists of four autonomous corps, or a total of 23 divisions, representing some 460,000 men at full mobilization. Estimates show that about 23 percent of the annual Iraqi national budget has been allocated to the armed forces for the last 30 years.
In reality, however, the Iraqi army exists mostly on paper.
Leaving aside the civilians, who provide bureaucratic, ancillary, and logistical services, the army’s backbone personnel numbers around 8,000. These consist of some 50 two-star generals and above, some 1,200 other officers, and over 6,000 noncommissioned officers. The soldier-mass of the army consists of conscripts aged 18 to 24.
The latest estimates show that the army at present has no more than eight divisions at full strength within the Fourth Army Corps, nicknamed Saladin. An additional ten divisions, at less than a third of their full strength, are kept in reserve for rotation purposes.
Surprisingly, Saddam Hussein, apparently convinced that he will somehow avoid a clash, has taken no measures to put the army on a war footing. This may also indicate his distrust of an army that, if rebuilt to its full strength and put on a war footing, might decide to enter Baghdad, remove Saddam from power, and make a deal with the U.S.-led coalition.
Theoretically, the 8,000 or so professional soldiers who provide the backbone of the army are loyal Baathists. But Saddam knows that a Baath party membership card is no guarantee against betrayal. During the past ten years alone, over 40 of his generals have defected, among them his own son-in-law. A further 150 generals have been cashiered and live under close surveillance in Baghdad.
It is no mystery that Saddam, who did not serve in the army even as a conscript, has never been popular among the Iraqi military. His massive purges of the military elite, including hundreds of executions, remain part of the Iraqi army’s collective historic nightmare.
The conscripts, most of them Shiites, have even less love for Saddam. They fought during the Iran-Iraq war because they were persuaded that the Iranian mullahs wished to conquer Iraq and turn it into a colony for “the Persians.” Now, however, it is unlikely that many Shiites would wish to die in order to keep Saddam in power. Unsure of its loyalty, Saddam is using the regular army for policing missions. Army units are sent to guard the oil fields of the north and the south and to protect sensitive installations and infrastructure.
Also, Saddam suffers from the fact that he is now perceived as a loser, whereas in 1980 and 1990 he was still looked upon as a potential winner. The Iraqi army’s performance during the eight-year war against Iran and in the Kuwait campaign could be described as mixed. In September 1980 it launched a three-pronged invasion of Iran at a time when the Iranian side was in disarray, with no credible defenses.
Nevertheless, the Iraqis failed to score major strategic gains. They alternated between a strategy based on positional warfare, at times recalling the first world war, and rapid Panzer-style movements that fit into no discernible pattern.
The Iraqi army showed itself to be caught between two cultures. The first was the Soviet military culture that emphasized political control, discouraged military initiative, and relied on territorial mass as a counterweight to enemy pressure. The other was the European, mostly British and French, military culture that encourages initiative, relies on movement, and aims at destroying an enemy’s assets rather than seizing his territory.
The Iraqi army’s problems were further complicated by the fact that the various commanders were not allowed to have direct communication among themselves: Everything had to pass through Saddam Hussein. The result was a series of unnecessary defeats. At one battle in Hamiyieh in 1984, for example, the Iranians annihilated two Iraqi divisions virtually within sight of six other Iraqi divisions that could not intervene because they had not received Saddam’s orders to attack.
The present defense minister, General Sultan Hashem Ahmad, then a young officer, was one of the few Iraqis who managed to escape with his life. He has had almost 20 years to ponder the slaughter of his men and comrades caused by Saddam’s insane system of control.
Through eight years of war against a disorganized Iran, the Iraqis failed to show much sparkle. They fought textbook battles and lost nearly all of them, against an enemy that, using its own demographic advantage in the most cynical of ways, dispatched suicide-squads of teenaged boys to neutralize the Iraqi armor. It was not until the Iraqis started using chemical weapons in massive amounts that they managed to “tame the Iranian teenage beast,” as Saddam subsequently boasted. The tactic of digging trenches and using chemical weapons worked: The Iranians were stopped and ultimately forced to accept a cease-fire.
The same tactics, however, cannot be employed against the U.S. The Iraqi army today lacks air cover, and thus cannot organize in and along lines of trenches. Nor can it use chemical weapons — unlike the Iranians, the U.S.-led forces are likely to come prepared. The Iranians had no means of retaliating in the face of chemical attacks while the Americans do, at least with low-grade uranium warheads.
Furthermore, for the Iraqi army to engage in positional warfare could be suicidal. The American-led forces could bypass whatever position is held by the Iraqis and then encircle and destroy them.
The Iraqi army’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 was a textbook operation based on the doctrine of seize-and-control. It went like clockwork and showed the Iraqi army at its operational best. But that was largely due to the fact that the Iraqis faced no opposition; the tiny Kuwaiti army had no means of conducting positional warfare in flat desert territory.
The 1991 war, in which the Iraqis were driven out of Kuwait by the U.S.-led coalition, gave the Iraqi army no real chance to develop a strategy. It lasted 100 hours, and ended after only a few mini-battles near Um-Qasar and Safwan. Many Iraqi officers never forgave Saddam for what they regard as his readiness to surrender to the Americans only to stay in power.
Will the Iraqi army fight now? The best considered answer is no.
What is more likely is that the army may intervene to remove Saddam from power and thus deny the Americans a pretext to occupy Iraq.
A provisional government, headed perhaps by the octogenarian former president Abdulrahman Aref, himself a retired general, could be set up to seek a cease-fire with the U.S.-led coalition. (Aref recently returned to Baghdad after an exile of 22 years in Turkey.)
The Iraqi army might fight under one hypothetical condition: Saddam has been overthrown and a new provisional regime is installed, but the American-led coalition still presses on for full occupation of Iraq. To fight and die for Saddam is not a cause that would attract many Iraqis these days. The cause of preventing Iraq from becoming an “American colony” might.
This is why it is vital that a provisional Iraqi authority be created as soon as Saddam Hussein’s end appears close.
Saddam has other forces that he hopes will fight for him. There is his parallel army, known as the Republican Guard, under the command of his son-in-law, Gen. Kamal Mustafa. The Republican Guard has a theoretical strength of 11 divisions, some 220,000 men. (Of course, being a son-in-law is no guarantee of loyalty. Saddam’s first son-in-law and favorite, Gen. Hussein Kamel al-Majid, betrayed him and defected in 1995.)
Saddam’s second son, Qusay, also heads a smaller force of some 8,000 men and women whose task is to protect Hussein. These forces, however, are more experienced in internal repression than in traditional warfare. Most guardsmen have joined to benefit from privileges (including better salaries, housing priority, automobiles, color TV sets, etc.). It is not certain how many might fight if they saw Saddam as a lost cause.
Talk of protracted urban guerilla warfare is unrealistic, for the simple reason that Saddam and his gang are not guerilla leaders — they are accustomed to ostentatious lifestyles. Most have potbellies and love an after-dinner digestif. (Iraq is the world’s second-biggest importer of French Cognac, after Japan.) The theatrical military uniforms Saddam and his associates wear were designed by Ted Lapidus, the French haute-couture designer, and are made of the choicest mixture of silk and cotton. Each Havana cigar smoked by vice president Taha Yassin al-Jizrawi and deputy premier Tareq Aziz costs $15.
Saddam may get one lucky break: The Americans may win the military side of the war but bungle the political side by transforming themselves from liberators into occupiers. Such a transformation could happen within days, even hours.
It is for just that contingency that the Americans must plan.
— Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is author of The Cauldron: The Middle East behind the headlines. Taheri is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.