EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third of a six-part series on Iraq after Saddam Hussein. The first two parts have been published; the final three will be published in the next several days. Today: the Iraqi army. The next installment will be on the chance for democracy in Iraq, plus a look at past Baath-party rule. This series was written for United Press International and is reprinted with permission.
As the Iraqi regime has fought for survival, Saddam Hussein has seemed unconcerned with the fate and future of the country’s armed forces — as well as the country as a whole. Massive and debilitating changes in the Iraqi army during 35 years of Baath-party rule have changed the armed forces into a force of oppression, both at home and abroad, rather than an institution that defends the integrity of the state and its citizens.
It is therefore essential that in the period immediately following a Coalition victory, the armed forces are completely overhauled:
to defend Iraq and support the maintenance of law and order;
to support but not serve as the governing power;
to dismiss all high-ranking officers connected to the discredited Baath party;
to prosecute all officers guilty of major crimes or crimes against humanity; and
to re-institute promotions based on merit, rather than ethnic or sectarian factors.
Several phases, most of them negative for the Iraqi military and the population as a whole, transformed the armed services from an institution in defense of the country and its sovereignty, to one primarily entrusted with preserving the ruling party’s control of the country during the first decade of Baath rule.
Subsequently, the military became a huge militia loyal to the dictator, led by his family and designated for internal repression and external aggression.
The Iraqi army witnessed huge growth in numbers, armament and fighting experience during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war and was widely regarded as the fourth- or fifth-largest and most powerful army in the world when it invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Virtually every military element was severely degraded during the 1991 Gulf War. Shortly before the start of hostilities, Saddam ordered every offensive aircraft in the Iraqi air force flown for “safekeeping” to archenemy Iran, with the result the aircraft have remained there, rusting in the desert, for 12 years. Nearly ten percent of the army surrendered shortly after the land war began, having barely fired a shot. In a single battle, two U.S. tanks destroyed 46 Iraqi tanks in a breathtaking display of tactics and firepower. Perhaps most detrimental in terms of threat potential now, Iraq’s once vaunted Scud missiles proved hopelessly inaccurate and have not been replaced with anything remotely effective in reaching such targets as Doha, Kuwait, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv.
With the exception of very senior military leaders — most of them members of Saddam Hussein’s Tikriti tribe — both officers and men are on starvation wages as they knowingly face a hopeless outcome of the war to come. Real wages have been devastated with steady devaluation of the Iraqi dinar since 1990 and an unending increase of prices for the most basic necessities of life.
Arab diplomatic sources in Baghdad have sharply downplayed the degree of fight the Iraqi army would mount in the event the U.S. Coalition attacks Iraq. The conclusion by one senior Arab ambassador in Baghdad is that regime rhetoric of “fierce resistance” to U.S.-led Coalition forces will be “very far from reality.” The subject is so delicate that any kind of discussion of the armed forces by political parties and the media is taboo and considered treasonous, with the convicted punished by death.
The elite Republican Guard numbers 50,000 and is the best Iraqi fighting force. Western intelligence sources estimate the Iraqi military to number five armies totaling another 380,000 soldiers, with 2,000 tanks and very limited weaponry. What firepower the army possesses is outdated and short-range. Although the air force has a substantial number of airbases and is the best-trained branch of the military, serviceable aircraft are limited in number and very outdated.
Distrust among the various national institutions-the regime, the military, and the general populace — has become a staple of Iraqi life. In 1994, Saddam Hussein established the Fedayeen Saddam, a feared paramilitary unit under the command of his eldest son, Uday. Garrisoned in Baghdad, the 15,000-man force was equipped with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy guns, with the express mission of crushing any internal rebellion against the regime.
Two years ago, Saddam ordered creation of the “Jerusalem (al Quds) army,” quickly claiming it numbered millions of volunteers dedicated to liberating Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. In fact, the aim of this new militia was to replace the “Popular army,” which had disintegrated in 1991, when many of its members took part in the widespread Shiite rebellion against the regime. The Popular army and its successor Jerusalem army were actually militarized structures designed to contain and control increasingly rebellious Iraqi youth. These “armies” also conveniently absorbed discarded military officers, keeping them at a safe distance from sensitive army positions and the centers of decision-making.
Informed observers predicted the Iraqi army would be compelled to fight a U.S. and British attack. Nevertheless, even the presence of “security” forces aiming guns at their backs could not stop mass desertions, nearly on a scale of 1991, when the Iraqi army was better trained, better armed and with higher morale.
Underlying these predictions is the open distrust between the military high command and lower echelons, particularly fighting units. The Iraqi leadership has created multiple intelligence units within the armed forces to spy on each other, and ban coordination or any direct contact among brigade commanders, fearing conspiracy against the regime.
On the other hand, defecting Iraqi officers regularly praise the courage and nationalism of the regular army and revolutionary guards who might play a decisive role in changing the regime in Baghdad if officers decide to turn against Saddam. Opposition leaders believe such a possibility is very remote, however, since Saddam’s tribesmen control all key positions in the armed forces and would abort any attempt to stage a coup. Moreover, Iraqi opposition parties themselves are fractious and weak, with minimal influence over the Iraqi military.
The Iraqi armed forces have become a gravely weakened, sycophantic tool in Saddam’s hands and lack a figure capable of winning the respect of the people. A significant accomplishment in post-Saddam Iraq, fundamental to ongoing stability, will be return of an army dedicated to supporting legitimate government and a peaceful society.
— Hussain Hindawi is a native Iraqi historian, humanitarian, and journalist who currently serves as editor of United Press International’s Arabic News Service. John R. Thomson has been involved in the Middle East since 1966 as businessman, diplomat, and journalist. He has lived in Beirut, Cairo, and Riyadh, and reported extensively during and after the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1990-91 Gulf War.