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Iraq's Swift Defeat Blamed on Leaders

Missteps and erratic orders by Hussein and his son Qusai hastened the collapse of an already fractured military, ex-officers say.

August 11, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein and his son Qusai crippled the Iraqi military through a multitude of erratic orders and strategic miscalculations, while its fighting units barely communicated with one another and were paralyzed from lack of direction, according to detailed interviews with more than a dozen former Iraqi commanders and servicemen.

These woes -- compounded by incompetence, poor preparation, craven leadership and wholesale desertions of thousands of soldiers unwilling to die for Saddam Hussein -- contributed to the Iraqi military's quick and stunning collapse against invading U.S. forces in early April, the former fighters said.

Typical of the erratic orders were those imposed by Qusai upon a Republican Guard unit outside Baghdad. As American forces approached the city in late March, the unit received a new order every morning to reposition its tanks. Each order contradicted the one before, infuriating local commanders, Col. Raaed Faik recalled.

But the orders had to be obeyed. They arrived by courier on slips of paper signed by Qusai, Saddam's younger son and commander of the Republican Guard.

Every time the tanks were moved from their bunkers, Faik said, a few more were exposed and destroyed by coalition air power. Meanwhile, he said, another commander was ordered to disable all three dozen of his tanks for fear they would be captured and used by Kurdish militias hundreds of miles north.

"These were the orders of an imbecile. Qusai was like a teenager playing a video war game," Faik, 33, said in the cool reception room of his Baghdad home, gesturing to his teenage son banging away on a computer combat game.

In the end, Saddam and Qusai were reduced to issuing commands from a convoy of civilian vehicles that retreated as U.S. tanks rolled into the capital, the former fighters said. Iraqi troops were largely without radios and maps. Field commanders dropped their weapons and fled. And soldiers waited in bunkers for orders that never arrived -- in many cases, unaware even that Baghdad had been invaded, the fighters said.

Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein's forces had been expected to put up a fierce defense of Baghdad, and U.S. officials warned that the Iraqis might even use chemical or biological weapons. Instead, the former Iraqi fighters said, orders to use chemical or biological weapons were never given because no such weapons existed.

Iraqi forces, who did not anticipate Americans would use tanks in urban combat inside the capital city, were largely unprepared for the ensuing armored onslaught. An eventual guerrilla war -- now being waged by remnants of Iraqi forces and other Arab fighters -- wasn't planned for because Hussein didn't think it would be necessary, the former Iraqi servicemen said.

And tactics that could have slowed U.S. forces, such as the mining of roads leading into Baghdad, were not employed because Hussein was confident his forces would repel the Americans.

"We should have mined the roads and bridges. We should have planned a guerrilla war," said retired Gen. Ahmed Rahal, 51. "We were crippled by a lack of imagination."

The command structure was confused from the start. Hussein was wary of concentrating power in one military force in case it might launch a coup, so he had created a number of jealous rival fighting groups -- including the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and the Fedayeen Saddam militia -- that never spoke to one another.

While the elite units were well armed and well paid, many regular army infantrymen were poorly paid and given just a single magazine of ammunition, former soldiers said. Regular army commanders schemed to undermine elite units, hoarding information and avoiding confrontations with U.S. forces. And many units were segregated by tribe or ethnic group, inhibiting coordination.

"We were like 10 different armies fighting their own private wars," said Nabil Qaisy, 31, a Baath Party militiaman who said he spent the battle cowering in a north Baghdad bunker, unaware that combat was raging in the city center a few miles away.

The military's limited communications -- only special units received reliable phones or radios -- fell apart early on, the soldiers said. Cut off and confused, commanders resorted to sending out soldiers in vehicles to scavenge scraps of information -- usually from other hopelessly uninformed units. One officer's car was crushed by an American tank on such a mission, one commander said.

The entire military was plunged into chaos. Just before the U.S. assault, soldiers said, some officers ordered military vehicles spray-painted in civilian colors, intending to drive them home for personal use after deserting. A Republican Guard unit fleeing the city descended on a regular army camp and stole its vehicles, they said. And a Republican Guard unit armed only with automatic rifles was sent to confront U.S. tanks and "was absolutely slaughtered," Col. Faik said.

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