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Death of an army foretold

Why the Iraqi military collapse so fast and so completely is a question that is doing the rounds the world over.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2006 04:27 IST

Why the Iraqi military collapse so fast and so completely is a question that is doing the rounds the world over. If the coalition forces were delayed, it was more a consequence of the Iraqi people not rising against their regime. The Iraqi military put up little if any resistance. What contributed to this caving in of a military edifice, which was thought to be based on a powerfully equipped and trained force? One needs to look long into the past of Saddam Hussein’s regime to find an answer. And that search for answers shows the death of the Iraqi military machine being foretold by its past.

An army is a product of society and reflects in itself the strengths and weaknesses of that society. In Iraq, individuals, families and societal groups had been reduced to unquestioning compliance to the regime. Dissent, even if suspected, was put down with death or imprisonment. Absolute loyalty to the regime and the person of Saddam Hussein was the sole criterion for ‘gainful’ living. The Baa’th regime did considerable good work for the people, even as it was unrelenting in its efforts to put down real or imagined dissent.

Iraq’s military machine was built on loyalty. Certainly in the officers corps, loyalty was of paramount importance for entry and upward mobility. The officer cadre, in its higher ranks, had some first rate military minds. They were well read and informed and could think deeply on military and strategic issues. However, none displayed the independence to ever question policy decisions of their Great Leader. Even a suggestion to that effect led to complete loss of position, even life. There were some who had trained in military institutions in India and a few had been to the National Defence College. They were uniformly well spoken and articulate and sharp military minds. Some of them rose to the highest ranks and even became ministers. But, no one could be certain when the order to step down would come. Some lost position and power, came back and went out and came back yet again. The decisions on the most senior commanders were take by Saddam and could never be predicted.

The army was mostly composed of those closely linked with the Baa’th Party. It was a curious mix of citizen militia and regular army. The notion of military cantonment or garrisons did not prevail in Saddam's Iraq. This was one way of keeping track of political and social dissent in the public at large. There were intelligence groups within the dreaded Mukhaabaraat, and no one was sure who was reporting to whom. Surveillance was total.

The Republican Guards were certainly the best equipped and included excellent human material. More importance, though, was given to personal and political loyalty. The force was, in fact, structured to take on the large mass of the Iraqi army if it turned against the leader. In a large army, absolute loyalty cannot be guaranteed. The higher standard of the Republican Guards was an insurance against a possible rebellion in the army. In the 1991 war, once the allied campaign commenced, the Republican Guards were the first to be pulled back from the front to Baghdad. Saddam could not take chances with certain defeat staring him in the face. He left the Iraqi army in the desert to be slaughtered by the coalition air attacks. He had earlier sent off his Air Force to Iran, his erstwhile enemy, which, in turn, led to the decimation of his army.

In the 1991 military debacle, even the Republican Guards had been badly mauled. There was undoubted resentment within Iraq on the human costs of war. There were doubts about the loyalty of the Republican Guards. So, Saddam raised the Special Republican Guards under his son, to guard against the Republican Guards. By entrusting the command of well equipped military forces to trusted relatives and aides, Saddam organised his own security. The creation of Saddam fedayeen came about later, and was apparently another layer for self-defence as separate from national defence.

Why Saddam allowed himself to be dragged into an unequal war a second time will remain a mystery. One explanation — and a credible one — is that none could counsel him. That was an invitation to disaster. As in the 1991 War, he made strategic and military judgments himself. A leader with no military background — far less than the corporal who led Germany in World War II — he was also an impetuous strategic gambler. His campaign against Iran, his preparations to settle the Israeli issue militarily, the invasion of Kuwait, and his inability to see the writing on the wall when the coalition forces were being assembled against him this time, were amazing decisions. The only explanation is that Saddam had removed himself from reality, was dependent on advice from those who could not tell the emperor about his missing clothes, and was driven by delusions of military power.

When the present war in Iraq was to begin, he gave the command of major forces to his sons. Then, he placed Izzat Ibrahim, an old man with hardly any military experience, in charge of a district. It is obvious that he could not trust his military commanders. He had to rely on his Information Minister to put out increasingly disingenuous military briefings. Not once was a senior military officer trusted to speak at press conferences being watched all over the world. Yet, those who knew the Iraqi army, had hoped against hope for a show of will. Sadly, the Iraqi leadership deserted its army. No wonder then that the Iraqi military crumbled against the double pincer attack of a distrusting leadership and the power of the coalition forces.

Iraq’s envoy to the UN summed up the situation succinctly. Asked if he would defect to the West, he replied, “Defect from whom? It is the Iraqi leadership which has deserted Iraq.” The death of the Iraqi Army was thus foretold long ago. There are lessons in it for those who think they know all about armies and war.

Lt Gen (Retd.) VR Raghavan, former DGMO, has had first hand experience of Iraq’s military and operational conditions

First Published: Apr 13, 2003 00:36 IST