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Iraqi Army: World's 5th Largest but Full of Vital Weaknesses : Military: It will soon be even larger. But its senior staff is full of incompetents and only a third of its troops are experienced.

August 13, 1990|JOHN M. BRODER and DOUGLAS JEHL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"He over-centralizes, he's extremely insecure, he does not recognize or reward competence properly. It's dangerous to become too good a leader. Hussein tolerates some competent corps and division commanders. But he rotates many, some disappear, some have accidents and some have actually been shot," Cordesman said.

Hussein himself shot the general responsible for botching the critical battle for the Iranian city of Khorramshahr in 1982, the last major battle of the war fought on Iranian soil, officials said. After misreading the enemy's intentions, misdeploying his troops and miscalculating when to counterattack, the general was summoned under armed guard to Baghdad, where he was summarily court-martialed. Hussein personally put a bullet through the officer's head, according to U.S. accounts.

The quality of the Iraqi army's officer corps reportedly has increased significantly in the last three years. "Up until 1988, the performance of the army left a great deal to be desired. They showed very little tactical flexibility; very little ability to plan blitzkrieg type operations," Carus said.

But the army adopted new tactics in the closing days of the war with Iran that allowed it to win several key engagements and settle the war on favorable terms. It also began using medium-range rockets it had bought or developed to pulverize Iranian cities, and that missile force has grown in both numbers and quality, Carus said.

Although U.S. officials discount recent reports that Hussein ordered the executions of 100 officers who refused to participate in the Kuwaiti invasion, there are persistent reports of dissatisfaction in the military.

If that dissatisfaction--and the so-called "rubber layer"--sometimes leaves Iraqi forces poorly led, its army's steel and iron generally more than make up for it.

With about 6,000 battle tanks, 300 fighter planes and a vast array of missiles, Iraqi war-making equipment is impressive by any standard.

In its top-line stockpile are battle-tested weapons that have earned stellar reputations in the decade's few wars: the Soviet T-72 tank, the Chinese Silkworm missile, the French Mirage fighter and the Exocet tactical missile, which almost sank the U.S. guided-missile frigate Stark in the Persian Gulf in 1987.

That size and strength permitted Iraq in its eight-year war against Iran to fight with leaden but crushing force, like the neighborhood bully who is slower than the others but too big to be hurt by their blows.

Epic clashes saw the Iraqi army deploy as many as 1,000 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery--a scale of battle not seen since World War II. These were largely set-piece battles of attrition, with Iraq wearing down its opponent and launching only well-rehearsed attacks.

"They can put a lot of firepower in whatever they choose to do," one government expert said.

But according to other analysts, the value of the weapons may be less impressive than mere numbers would suggest. Beneath the high-quality surface are inventories that are indisputably second-tier: for each of the fearsome T-72 tanks in Iraq's arsenal there are five outmoded T-54s.

"A lot of this is usual Soviet second-rate ordnance," said Carus. "And a lot is generic Soviet-Chinese kinds of stuff."

At the same time, air defenses, bristling with Soviet missiles and similar French gear, are believed to be stripped-down versions vulnerable to American attack. Communications, advanced by Third World standards, are believed susceptible to advanced jamming techniques.

And the French-trained air force--while "the most competent in the Arab world," according to Benjamin Lambeth, a RAND Corp. analyst--displayed against Iran a glaring lack of accuracy in its bombing and little aggressiveness in air-to-air battle.

Still, a U.S. official cautioned, "You can't disregard 550 combat aircraft."

The Iraq defensive mind-set reflects a legacy of formal Soviet training that has long left Iraqi students obedient to an extreme. When battle does not advance as laid out in the textbook, military experts say, the Iraqis often do not know what to do.

"The command and control is over-centralized," said Cordesman, the congressional expert. "They are too rigid, too slow to react."

To overcome that inertia, the Iraqis in recent years have turned to extremes. Chemical weapons, first envisioned as a last-ditch tool of defense, were adapted to the attack to help overcome a lack of maneuverability.

Nerve gas, spread by bombs or artillery, became a superior form of firepower to pin down and overrun defending forces. Mustard gas, far more persistent, substituted for quick reaction in keeping attacking forces at bay. And in a telling tactic in its blitzkrieg of Kuwait, the Iraqi army, now boasting 20 special forces brigades, demonstrated a previously unseen ability to stage a commando strike.

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