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Small Arms

Will Saddam's troops fight?

Today, Ba'adre is once again a sleepy, backwater town in northern Iraq, 25 miles south of Dohuk and miles from the nearest paved road. Few Iraqis have ever heard of Ba'adre, and fewer still visit. But, for 72 hours in December 2000, Ba'adre captured attention in crisis rooms in Washington, London, and Ankara after Iraqi troops invaded the Kurdish safe haven and laid siege to the town. The last time Saddam Hussein had been so bold-in August 1996, when his Republican Guard invaded the Kurdish capital of Erbil-the Bill Clinton administration had responded by lamely firing cruise missiles at lightly manned Iraqi military facilities hundreds of miles south of the invasion zone. But in Ba'adre the United States went right at the invading force. And when American warplanes flew low over the Iraqi lines, 138 Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons and surrendered without a shot being fired; the rest quickly withdrew. The lesson wasn't complicated: Not many Iraqis want to die for Saddam. Soon after the surrender at Ba'adre, I met a Baghdad Arab in a restaurant in the northeastern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah and asked him about Iraqi military morale. "Do you really think my son wants to be in uniform?" he asked. "Or anyone in his unit? He hears about life outside of Iraq. That's what he wants to live, not what he wants to fight."

THAT MESSAGE IS getting lost in the loud and muddled American debate over war with Iraq. If there's an emerging conventional wisdom uniting many of the pundits, military analysts, and former government officials who have taken to the airwaves and op-ed pages in recent weeks, it's that the United States can overthrow Saddam, but it will be messy and painful. In particular, commentators worry that a U.S. assault will bog down in urban warfare. "It's going to involve Iraqis hiding behind civilian populations, ambushing us from the basements and roofs of various buildings, trying to use shoulder-launched weaponry against our helicopters, and making life difficult. We will win, but we could lose a thousand or more people if things go badly," Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon told CNN on August 9. One week later in The Wall Street Journal, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft opined that liberating Iraq "would be very expensive ... and could as well be bloody." And this week a front-page, above-the-fold New York Times headline warned, "IRAQ SAID TO PLAN TANGLING THE U.S. IN STREET FIGHTING."

But there's reason to believe that these predictions-like many of those that preceded America's military successes in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the first Gulf war-are too pessimistic. For one thing, the United States can't bog down in protracted warfare in Baghdad unless a significant number of Iraqi troops are willing to fight us there. And as the Ba'adre incident suggests, they may not be. In 1991, it's worth remembering, the Iraqi military collapsed and fled a mere 100 hours into the ground war. In May 2001, after Iraqi forces struck at Kifri, another Kurdish-held town, they were repelled by lightly armed Kurdish militiamen-who reportedly killed at least 30 of Saddam's men. Iraqi military morale is extremely low. In April 1995 Saddam dismissed his army chief of staff after a mass defection of soldiers to the Iraqi opposition; some army units saw defection rates of 30 percent. Last summer, after Saddam ordered compulsory military training for boys between ages twelve and 17, many Iraqi families tried to hide their sons. Just last month opposition sources reported that Saddam's older son, Uday, has launched a campaign to hunt down deserters-who reportedly constitute up to 10 percent of Iraqi conscripts, according to military police statistics, despite the fact that the penalty for desertion can be death.

Some U.S. commentators worry that when American invaders show up in their capital, even anti-Saddam Iraqis will rally around the dictator. But that likely underestimates the depth of hatred most Iraqis feel toward their leader. Close to one in every five Iraqis, after all, lives in exile-having fled Saddam's regime-and more than 700,000 have perished in wars or government purges since Saddam formally assumed Iraq's presidency in 1979. That means most Iraqi families have a murdered or exiled family member or friend. And the victims are not merely Kurds and Shia. Roughly 400,000 Iraqis have taken refuge across the border in Jordan, the vast majority of them Sunni Arabs like Saddam himself. And last week's attack on the Iraqi embassy in Berlin was the work of Sunni Arabs as well.

Iraqis may be subjected to a great deal of pro-Saddam propaganda; but unlike, say, North Koreans, they have relatively easy access to outside information that debunks Saddam's lies about America's wickedness and his own invulnerability. Since 1992 the Kurds have controlled an area of northern Iraq twice the size of New Jersey. In the safe haven, satellite dishes abound, and Kurdish and Arab Iraqis frequently cross the porous line of control. What travelers from Baghdad see on the BBC, CNN, or Turkish television while visiting the Kurdish north, they then repeat to others in Saddam-held Iraq. As the United States draws closer to war, U.S. intelligence will likely supplement this with information from other sources-such as leaflet drops and radio broadcasts-as it did during the Afghan war. And already Iraqis are reacting to the news of impending war not by flocking to Baghdad to protect their leader but by fleeing the city in hopes of avoiding his fate. In late July travelers reported the flight of thousands of Iraqis out of Baghdad into the countryside.

Some pundits concede that most Iraqis, and even most Iraqi soldiers, would not fight for Saddam but suggest that the elite Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, which protects presidential compounds, would both stay loyal and cause problems for U.S. attackers. But even the Republican Guard's loyalty is far from assured. In June 1996 Iraqi security uncovered a coup plot among both Republican Guard and Special Guard troops. The Republican Guard may be Iraq's military elite, but, unlike the fanatical soldiers of Al Qaeda, they are basically mercenaries-Saddam's Baathism having long ago become the ideological equivalent of 1980s-era Soviet communism.

The Republican Guard serves Saddam because of fear and money. When the United States attacks, that fear will surely be counterbalanced by the prospect of facing America's much more fearsome army if they resist. And a U.S. invasion, if carried out effectively, could cut off the revenue on which Saddam currently relies to buy his elite troops' loyalty. A U.S. ground assault would likely use a combination of American special forces and Iraqi opposition forces to quickly separate Saddam from the lucrative oil fields in Kirkuk and in southern Iraq, areas where the local Kurdish, Turkmen, and Shia populations bear him extreme ill will. Saddam has recently moved troops nearer to the oil fields, but in the open desert those troops would be highly vulnerable to U.S. airpower. Alternatively, the United States could prevent Saddam from exporting oil by severing the Iraq-Syria pipeline, which runs from Kirkuk to the Syrian Mediterranean port of Banias, and by blockading Iraq's 36-mile-long coastline along the Persian Gulf. Under either scenario Saddam would quickly find himself without the money to pay even his best troops. And that could have a dramatic effect on their loyalty. Between 1991 and the 1996 implementation of the United Nations' oil-for-food program, for instance, Saddam refused to export large amounts of oil and instead chose to smuggle only small amounts for his own initiatives. The Iraqi economy plummeted. With their lifestyle threatened, some of Saddam's closest allies rebelled. In 1993, members of Saddam's own tribe in Tikrit attempted a coup. Destabilizing Saddam's revenue source could destabilize his hold on power once again.

AND EVEN IF some members of the Republican Guard do make a stand in Baghdad, they'll likely be overwhelmed by U.S. firepower. U.S. airpower, after all, forced the collapse of both the Afghan and Yugoslav militaries. And since those conflicts, America's air capacity has grown considerably. In last year's Afghanistan campaign, more than 70 percent of the ordnance dropped by the United States was precision-guided, more than twice the figure from the 1999 Kosovo campaign and more than seven times that from the 1991 Gulf war. With high-tech ordnance now battle-tested, the use of precision bombs and smart weapons would likely be even higher in an Iraq campaign. While newspaper leaks have featured sobering assessments of the number of U.S. troops needed for an Iraq war, such numbers can be deceiving. Combat troops typically account for less than half of any deployment; the remaining support personnel serve outside the arena of battle. And the number of U.S. troops who would actually enter Baghdad would be far less even than that. And it's not only the remarkable advances in precision-guided ordnance and bunker-buster bombs that will likely prevent the United States from repeating its disastrous urban-warfare experience in Mogadishu-when 18 American Special Forces soldiers died trying to capture warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid's top lieutenants. The mission itself makes that scenario implausible since the United States will not be trying to seize Saddam and his lieutenants but kill them, something that can be done more easily from the air. And from the air the United States has few worries. Saddam's air force consists of undertrained pilots flying antiquated and spare- part-short Soviet MiG-25s and French Mirage F-1s-neither of which is any match for increasingly sophisticated U.S. aircraft. And Saddam has failed to shoot down any manned American aircraft in the ten years American pilots have been patrolling the northern and southern no-fly zones.

In fact, as U.S. military strength has grown in recent years, Iraq's has deteriorated. Iraq's army now is just one-third the size it was when it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Even the Republican Guard units are understaffed and underequipped. On December 31, 2000, for instance, Saddam presided over a four- hour Baghdad military parade. Reuters described how "the parade displayed sophisticated surface-to-surface and anti-aircraft missiles, artillery and more than 1,000 modern, Russian-made tanks as well as infantry units." But Michael Eisenstadt, a military analyst for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, watched footage of the parade and made a startling observation: Some of the showcased vehicles were actually captured Kuwaiti equipment repainted by the Iraqi army (the Kuwaitis purchased a variant of the t-72 tank that the Iraqis had not). Far from being the new, refurbished army Saddam sought to portray, the showcase of decade-old captured Kuwaiti armor highlighted how decrepit Saddam's military really is. Equipment not looted by Saddam's government was little better. "Most of the vehicles on display appeared to be old, beat-up Iraqi inventory," says Eisenstadt. "You could see the wear on the road wheels and fenders in the close-up shots." And if Saddam's troops lack equipment, they also lack training. As Patrick Clawson, editor of the forthcoming study Iraq After Saddam, comments, "Urban warfare is a specialized skill which takes a lot of training to learn. And I know of no evidence that Saddam has allowed Iraqi soldiers into the cities to practice this skill. Indeed, given how paranoid Saddam is about allowing his troops anywhere near Baghdad, I would be surprised to see Iraqi soldiers practicing how to fight street by street." Egypt's former Chief of Staff General Salah Halaby put it more bluntly earlier this month: "The Iraqi army has no chance whatsoever to stand steadfast and will fall like a castle of sand."

Even with such predictions, of course, no one can be sure what will happen if the United States goes to war. But given the danger of allowing Saddam to continue pursuing a nuclear bomb, the current Iraq debate is all about relative risk. And there's good reason to believe that the risk of taking on Saddam is—thankfully—far lower than the skeptics would have us believe.

This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.