Surrender or fight?

IRAQ: THE LOOMING WAR

SADDAM’S SOLDIERS

It will surrender in droves. It will fight tooth and nail. DERWIN PEREIRA, our roving correspondent in the Middle East, looks at which of these paths Iraq’s military will choose.

WILL they or will they not fight an American invasion?

That is the key question being asked about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s military after reports suggesting that Iraqi officers were in ‘secret surrender’ negotiations with the US – ready to throw down their weapons after the opening shots. Others insist that after confronting Americans for the past 12 years and blaming the US for all their ills after suffering severe sanctions, the military and Iraqis will fight an invasion tooth and nail.

The truth lies somewhere in between.

Observers contend the most likely scenario to emerge is one in which a large number will surrender or desert almost immediately after an attack.

But a third of the army – the elite Republican Guard and a small part of the regular military – is likely to fight hard in Baghdad with the support of the Iraqi security agencies.

Either way, analysts believe the Saddam regime will collapse given that the Americans and Iraqi opposition fighters would have encircled Baghdad, leaving them almost no escape routes.

Dr Shafiq Al-Ghabra of the Centre for Strategic Studies in Kuwait told The Sunday Times: ‘The Iraqi military is not the power it once used to be, and even when it was strong it crumbled in a matter of days in the face of American onslaught in 1991.

‘It is not a unified force because of fault lines drawn along ethnicity.

‘Part of it will stay on to fight but a large number will just give up after facing the might of American firepower which is far better than it was 12 years ago.’

Mr Saddam’s army today is half its former size with old weapons and ill-trained soldiers with poor morale.

Apart from the Republican Guard, the 23 divisions of the regular army are ‘virtually irrelevant’ except for three that distinguished themselves in the first Gulf War.

Each division has 8,000 to 10,000 men.

The Gulf War provides evidence of the military’s weakness.

After 39 days of air strikes – and without adequate food and water – 16 Iraqi regular army infantry divisions ran or surrendered en masse to coalition ground troops.

Many other formations fled from Kuwait after receiving Mr Saddam’s order to retreat.

Tellingly, during the Kurdish revolt of 1991 in northern Iraq, large numbers of troops of Kurdish descent joined the rebellion.

In the south, the Shi’ite revolt attracted mostly Shi’ite soldiers and officers, but some Sunnis joined as well.

However, the Republican Guard – the standard bearer of professionalism among Iraqi troops – and a handful of regular army divisions remained both loyal and cohesive enough after the debacle of Desert Storm to suppress both rebellions. It is a pattern that is likely to be repeated this time around, according to former CIA analyst and White House national security aide Kenneth Pollack.

In his book, The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, he points out that the Republican Guard is more heavily composed of Sunni tribesmen loyal to Mr Saddam than was the case in 1991.

US troops will face serious opposition in Baghdad.

Five Special Republican Guard brigades, totalling up to 15,000 troops and trained in urban warfare, have been based there since 1995 with the sole aim of protecting Mr Saddam.

But Dr Amatzia Baram of the Brookings Institution in Washington makes it clear that the military might not be altogether critical for Mr Saddam’s survival.

More important for him are officers in the Special Security Organisation who have served as a counterweight to the
armed forces.

Noted the Middle East expert: ‘Since he became president, Mr Saddam has had a complex relationship with his professional army officers. They do not respect his military and strategic thinking, mostly because he never served in the armed forces. ‘But by emphasising to them that he can win wars essentially without them by wielding non-conventional weapons, Saddam demonstrates he needs his officers less than they think.’

Some observers such as Dr Shafiq said it would be only a question of time before his loyalists collapse under the weight of an American invasion.

‘It will be impossible for them to hold on to the fort for long. The Americans would, through an aerial blitzkrieg and ground assault, secure the northern and southern frontiers of the country, leaving them no place to run except to fight to the death.’

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