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Iraq Counting On Trusted Troops, Party Loyalists

Regime says its people are ready to defend the nation, but U.S. attack could alter dynamics.

November 01, 2002|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — If the United States attacks Iraq's capital, Abdel Hussein knows what to do: Find and neutralize saboteurs who might slip into Baghdad to plant bombs or spy for the enemy.

Hussein, 52, is not in the army. He is a member of the ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party, which has evolved into a state security organization and one of Saddam Hussein's pillars of power.

"They want to topple the regime. We are going to fight," said Hussein, a 35-year member of the party. "It is not just a matter of technology and missiles. It will be man to man."

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is taking the threat from the United States very seriously, and while he is waging an aggressive diplomatic effort to try to prevent an invasion, he is also getting his people ready for battle. Despite the president's confident rhetoric about winning a war, a fundamental question hangs over the regime: Whom can it really count on to fight?

Without a doubt it can rely on citizens such as Abdel Hussein, who would lose his privileged social status and financial benefits if the regime falls -- and would risk retribution from angry Iraqis.

And it can count on loyalist groups such as the Saddam Fedayeen, a black-uniformed militia with many thousands of volunteers trained to fight and operate antiaircraft artillery.

But what about everyone else?

As the Bush administration builds toward a possible armed confrontation with Iraq, that is one of the principal questions on the minds of military planners on both sides.

The Iraqi regime says that every single one of 11.5 million eligible voters cast ballots last month in support of the president. It also says that every single family has a weapon and will use it to defend the country.

Yet many people here privately acknowledge that the regime faces a threat not only from abroad but also from within.

Like Washington, Baghdad is wondering whether the Shiite Muslims who make up a majority of the population in a country ruled by Sunni Muslims will rise up in rebellion.

Will the army -- a poorly funded, poorly armed group of conscripts -- fight, or will its soldiers flee?

Will the general population, fatigued after more than two decades of repressive rule, wars and U.N. sanctions, pick up weapons or stay home and lock the doors?

Most analysts and observers here agree that the regime is, at the moment, fully in command of the nation's streets and that most people would not greet U.S. invaders as liberators. But they say an invasion could alter the equation -- either for or against the regime.

If Americans lay siege to Baghdad and cripple the already frail infrastructure, for example, people could rally around the leadership. But if the public senses the regime is finished, many people may well refuse to fight; such a perception could also encourage anti-Saddam Hussein elements to rise up.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, for instance, the Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south led fierce uprisings that were eventually crushed by forces loyal to Hussein.

"If the water pumps are hit, it can create a bad situation," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. Then "if Americans topple the regime, they might face a popular uprising."

In a society controlled by overlapping security agencies and the fear that comes from arbitrary arrest and execution, there is no way to accurately gauge public sentiment. Everyone here uses the overly dramatic language of their president, insisting, for example, that they will spill every last bit of blood in defense of their country.

But there are signs that the regime does not fully believe its own rhetoric.

The authorities are concerned enough about losing control of the street that they recently deployed soldiers and secret police to disperse small crowds of men and women who gathered outside government offices to ask for information about loved ones who have disappeared in the prison system.

The small, unprecedented demonstrations followed an effort by the president to shore up the people's loyalty with dramatic gestures such as doubling monthly food rations and granting a universal prison amnesty.

In this environment, the regime is turning to its most trusted institutions to help maintain control.

The army, with an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 troops, is not expected to hold up well in the event of a war, with many of its members either lying low or flat out refusing to fight, diplomats and outside analysts say. In the 1991 war, Iraqi soldiers surrendered by the thousands.

More crucial to the regime is the Republican Guard and the Special Republican Guard, two groupings with nearly 100,000 troops between them. They are well trained, well funded and well armed. They are preparing to help defend crucial areas, especially Baghdad.

After Iraq was forced out of Kuwait in the Gulf War, the Republican Guard put down the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions. It did so violently and, when it came to shooting unarmed civilians, without hesitation.

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