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Iraqi Officers Describe a War of Courage, Bumbling, Despair

Three officers tell of the disintegration of the 400,000-man force, whose goal became toppling Saddam Hussein.

June 01, 2003|Charles J. Hanley | Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD — In the fourth day of war, the American bombs and shells slammed into their lines with such fury that some of Maj. Hikmat Khalaf's young soldiers wept from fear and hid. There at Nasiriyah, he knew: "We were finished."

After a week of war, Col. Yassin Tahir pulled his dwindling battalion -- 35 men -- back to a command post near Amarah. In the morning light, he found it empty. The corps headquarters had fled. Why, he asked himself, should my soldiers now die?

In the final days of war, Abdul-Wahhab Abdul-Zahra watched as Baath Party loyalists took a last stand, doomed, in the fire and smoke of Baghdad, Kalashnikov rifles against Abrams tanks. The war-hardened colonel, a teacher of infantry, knew how to fight tanks. But why? "We wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We gave up fighting."

Weeks have passed since the big guns fell silent around Baghdad, and the three Iraqi army officers, close friends and neighbors, now sit at home, out of uniform, in the maze of narrow streets that forms north Baghdad's vast Shiite Muslim ghetto -- a place of flies, heat, the stench of raw sewage -- and wait, with millions of other Iraqis, for their future to unfold.

Before memories begin to fade, however, these three veterans also shared the recent past with an American journalist, offering a look behind the disintegration of a 400,000-man military, with accounts of courage, despair and incompetence, told with hope for better days to come, and wounded pride.

"If Saddam had left and left Iraq to us, the Americans would have had to fight us for 10 years," Abdul-Zahra said.

Now Saddam is gone, and these proud professionals feel free, finally, to mock their tyrant.

"Before the war, he appeared on TV with some staff officers," recalled the tall, rawboned Abdul-Zahra, most recently an instructor at the Baghdad military academy, Iraq's West Point. "He asked them: 'Are you prepared for war? Have you finished with the toilet arrangements for the troops?' "

The colonel and his friends laughed. Every officer knew that Hussein's army was unprepared, with obsolete equipment, few spare parts, inadequate training.

"Toilets," Abdul-Zahra said. "Can you imagine asking us, professionals, such a question?"

Such Saddam sessions with military men -- a president with no military background lecturing top soldiers on how to fight a war -- became a fixture on Iraqi television in the weeks before the U.S.-British invasion. One February night, Tahir, commander of a mechanized infantry battalion, was ordered to appear as one of the dutiful extras.

"The army headquarters summoned me," said the colonel, a talkative, animated man. "First I was searched. Then I was put in one car with blacked-out windows and then another. They didn't want me to know where I was going. When I got there, I was searched again, and they took everything from me, even my wristwatch, and gave me a small notebook and pencil."

In unison around a conference table, under TV lights in a secret location, Tahir and the other officers obediently jotted down notes as Hussein spoke. But Tahir doesn't have his notes, and he can't remember a word of what the "Father of Iraq" said that night.

Tahir rejoined his battalion outside Amarah on a ridge overlooking the Tigris River in southeastern Iraq, where he was made "miserable" by a badgering sergeant who was the unit's Baath Party representative. "I, a colonel, sometimes got orders from him."

Then, at dawn on March 20, American cruise missiles struck, zeroing in on the Iraqi IV Corps headquarters at Amarah, where Tahir afterward found eight soldiers' bodies outside the ruins.

"They were so mutilated, you couldn't tell which was the major general," he recalled.

Tahir knew the face of war. He and Abdul-Zahra, both 40, grew up 20 yards from each other in the overcrowded homes their extended families still inhabit, graduated from the military academy together in 1985, and went off as fresh lieutenants to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

That grinding, wasteful conflict haunts them. "In one battle, at Penjawin, I lost 70 men, more than half my company," Abdul-Zahra said.

In that war too they learned that as Shiite Muslims, a suppressed majority in Iraq, they would draw combat duty while Sunnis, favored by the Baath leadership, were more likely to stay in the rear.

That was true as well in 2003, when the U.S.-British attack first hit overwhelmingly Shiite units, including the 11th Division of their friend, Khalaf, 37, whose artillery battalion was dug in on the date-palm flatlands at Nasiriyah, a city of mud-brick homes and half a million people in Iraq's far south.

"Overnight on the 20th-21st of March, the American planes hit our 3rd Battery hard," said the stocky, bearded Khalaf, whose booming voice might even carry over a cannon's thunder. By March 23, the pounding was worse. Khalaf and other officers braved the attacks from outside their bunkers to give their unnerved men courage.

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