Steing 2011-08-12 19:25:56
A Foe That Collapsed From Within
Former Iraqi Officers Say Internal Divisions, Ineptitude Ensured
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2003; Page A01
BAGHDAD — At 8:30 p.m. on April 7, two days before the fall of
Baghdad, Iraqi Col. Abdul Kareem Abdul Razzaq assembled his remaining
soldiers and looked into their heartbreakingly tired, dispirited
faces, he recounted in an interview last week.
“The [U.S.] Air Force is bombing, there’s a huge American Army coming
we can’t fight, we are losing control,” he told them. “We’ve been
ordered to continue fighting. What do you think we should do?”
The men — only 600 of his original 1,500 soldiers had not deserted or
been killed during the battle for Baghdad’s airport — were nearly
unanimous in their decision to take their Kalashnikov rifles and go
“I gave the order to retreat,” Abdul Razzaq said, his face contorted
by deep furrows and an anguished grimace. “If I had given the order
for my soldiers to stay, they’d all be killed.”
In the final days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, this country’s armed
forces collapsed from within, with soldiers deserting in droves and
commanders of even the most elite units refusing to push their last
fighters toward inevitable slaughter by a technologically superior
U.S. force, former Iraqi military leaders said.
The rapid disintegration was largely preordained, Iraqis said. The
Iraqi military was composed of disparate and competing armies with no
central command authority, top generals inexplicably ordered some
units not to fight, and security precautions left officers unable to
communicate or to coordinate battle plans, according to interviews
with more than two dozen former general officers and other field
commanders serving in the regular army and special military units.
By the time the war began, most of the Iraqi air force’s fighter
planes had been disassembled and hidden, many air defense units were
under orders not to turn on their radars and artillery batteries were
operating at 50 percent capability, military leaders said.
In the end, former president Saddam Hussein was undercut not only by
the destruction wrought by the Americans but by an Iraqi regular
military that felt little loyalty to a leader who paid his special
armies better salaries and intimidated generals into lying about the
dilapidated state of his armed forces, the senior officers said.
Though it is impossible to independently verify the accounts provided
by the officers interviewed over the past week, the close parallels
among experiences described by military leaders from field units,
headquarters divisions and special forces assigned to a wide variety
of locations buttressed their credibility. Only a handful of the
officers requested that their names be withheld.
Every commander interviewed said that despite the anxiety of U.S.
officials, no Iraqi military unit had been issued chemical or
And while U.S. military leaders had also feared a bloodbath in the
streets of Baghdad, all the commanders said their men were not under
orders to fall back into the capital and wage urban warfare. Rather,
they said, their men deserted or retreated with the aim of
self-preservation. Some commanders said they ordered their soldiers to
defend their homes and families, but did not tell them to take
offensive action against Americans.
Today, the more than 400,000 officers and soldiers of the former Iraqi
military are among the country’s most disenfranchised and
disillusioned citizens. For senior officers who dedicated a lifetime
to a once-respected institution and reaped honorific and financial
benefits for battles won in past wars, the ignoble demise of the armed
forces has been excruciating.
“I cried after the collapse of Baghdad,” said Gen. Mohammad Ali Jasim,
51, a 31-year veteran whose infantry division was assigned to the
southern city of Basra during the U.S. invasion. “I didn’t even cry
when my son was killed in an accident when he was young. But I cried
when we lost Baghdad.”
His voice faltered and his deep-set eyes welled with tears. “We are
ashamed. We are military officers.”
Weakened by Divisions
Brig. Hassen Jabani, 46, a career officer with a prominent mole on his
left cheek and a mouthful of chipped teeth, commanded a tank division
in the Republican Guard, a vanguard of the Iraqi military with better
equipment and soldiers than the regular army.
Twelve days into the war, he said, when U.S. generals were warning of
fierce battles with the Republican Guard on the outskirts of Baghdad,
he had already lost communication with his leadership.
His soldiers began deserting in waves on April 3, the day before U.S.
fighter jets turned his T-72 tanks into burning hulks of blackened
“Seventy percent of my soldiers went home,” said Jabani, whose rank is
equivalent to a one-star general in the U.S. military. “I saw we had
no chance to win. I let them go. We retreated without any fighting. It
was no use. . . . Everybody knew we’d lose to the Americans.”
The rapid collapse of Iraq’s premier fighting forces surprised
American and Iraqi military commanders alike. But Iraqi officers from
both the regular army and the special forces said the breakdown was
due not only to U.S. bombardment but to the hollowness at the core of
a military built on mistrust, deception and abuse.
Since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Hussein had been
reconstructing his armed forces to prevent just such a debacle. After
the failed Shiite Muslim uprising in southern Iraq after the Gulf War,
he became distrustful of his regular army, which included many Shiite
soldiers and officers. He began building specialized forces that
operated outside the control of the regular army, according to Iraqi
“Saddam created small armies to protect his tribe, his interests, his
family,” said Col. Abdul Razzaq, who spent most of his 23-year career
in the infantry. “He was afraid the regular army might rise up against
Hussein formed the Special Republican Guard, with an estimated 15,000
to 25,000 soldiers, and put his son Qusay in charge. In 1995, he
created the feared Fedayeen paramilitary force — tens of thousands of
men originally trained to quell internal uprisings and demonstrations.
The Fedayeen answered to Hussein’s more ruthless son, Uday. And just
after the Palestinian uprising against Israel began in the fall of
2000, Hussein built the Al-Quds Army, a specialized military force
that bore the Arabic name for Jerusalem and was ostensibly geared
toward fighting the Israelis.
“There was no coordination between these armies — they hate each
other,” said Brig. Rasheed Islam Joubouri, 56, who spent 34 years in a
regular-army infantry unit.
During the war, the lack of communication and coordination hastened
the defeat of the Iraqi forces. A regular-army general in charge of an
air defense unit in Baghdad said he was ordered not to activate his
weapons because the Republican Guard was responsible for the city’s
The favoritism heaped on the special militias widened the gap between
them and the regular army, whose soldiers received one-third as much
pay, whose officers were accorded much less respect and whose units
received inferior equipment, commanders said.
“We didn’t work for Saddam Hussein, we worked for the country,” said
Col. Jamal Salem, 41, who headed operations at a major supply base
about 15 miles outside Baghdad. “It was our job. I loved the army.”
As a result, he said, “we had no fight with the Americans. When we
heard they were in Baghdad, it was over for us.”
Even in the regular army, divisiveness was rampant. Hussein routinely
doled out new cars, Rolex watches and cash to senior generals,
according to several general officers who acknowledged receiving such
“The army was fed up and tired of fighting after three wars,” said
Col. Abu Ala Zuhairi, 45, who served 23 years in infantry missile
defense units. “The commanders received many presents, but the
soldiers were starving.”
In the final days of war, with his equipment destroyed, his leaders in
disarray and his comrades deserting, Capt. Ahmed Hassan, 38, whose
infantry unit was responsible for defending the northern city of
Kirkuk, said he simply had no incentive to fight.
“I asked my commander, ‘Why should I stay? The people behind me are
retreating,’ ” Hassan recalled. “I took off my high ranks and said
goodbye to everything I’d known for 13 years.”
Afraid to Tell the Truth
Hussein’s system of rewards also spawned an atmosphere of deceit that
deluded the president into believing his armed forces went into the
war far better equipped and militarily capable than they really were,
senior officers said.
Gen. Yasin Mohammad Taha Joubouri, an artillery specialist with 38
years in the regular army, said he was summoned to a meeting with the
president in 1999, who ordered him to help the Defense Ministry build
one of the largest artillery pieces in the world.
The army, with assistance from specialists, designed a cannon with a
barrel 210 millimeters — more than eight inches — in diameter, a
weapon so cumbersome that Joubouri and the other specialists knew it
could not work. Still, Joubouri helped build a full-scale model and
drafted fake performance records to convince the president that the
project was progressing.
“No one could tell him it couldn’t work,” said Joubouri, who said he
was still working on the cannon when he left the army six months ago.
“He was giving us awards and presents.”
On the morning of March 16, four days before U.S. forces launched the
war, Gen. Kareem Saadoun, a tall, hawk-faced air force commander with
25 years in the armed forces, was among 150 senior officers ushered
into an underground auditorium outside Baghdad.
Hussein stood on a stage. His son Qusay occasionally stepped to his
side to light his cigars as Hussein exhorted his generals in a
rambling pep talk and tirade against the United States, Saadoun
When Hussein opened the floor to comments, Saadoun stepped forward.
“We are ready to fight for our land,” said Saadoun, whose rank is
equivalent to that of a two-star general in the U.S. military. “We
hope there will be no war, but if it comes, we would be willing to
Saadoun said he and every other regular army officer in the room who
testified to their fighting ability that morning were lying. They were
afraid of telling the president the truth: Their aircraft, tanks and
other weaponry were far too old and decrepit to take on U.S. forces.
“We knew there was no way to fight the Americans,” he said. “We knew
we’d lose the war.”
Before the generals left the room, Hussein’s aides handed each one a
gift of 1 million Iraqi dinars — about $5,000 — in cash. Saadoun
thought the president looked pale, his face tired and yellow. He was
not the same smiling, joking Hussein that Saadoun had seen during a
similar audience in 2001 when the gift for each attendee had been the
equivalent of $20,000.
In late February, the air force was ordered to disassemble its planes,
according to Saadoun and other air force officers and pilots. The
aircraft were stripped of their wings — a drill every air base had
conducted each month since the end of the Gulf War — and hidden in
farm fields and urban neighborhoods. Saadoun said the mechanics had
become so proficient they could dismantle the wings of a MiG-21
fighter in two hours.
Iraq had already lost much of its air force in 1991, when U.S. forces
destroyed Iraqi fighter jets in the air and on the ground and Iran
refused to return more than 100 planes that Iraqi pilots had flown to
the neighboring country to avoid American attacks.
As this year’s war began, air force officers, pilots and troops
“We had no orders,” said Col. Diar Abed, 36, a wing commander at
Rashid air base in southern Baghdad. “We just stayed in the bases and
waited. I thought, ‘I am losing my country. Why don’t they give us
orders?’ The leaders at the base didn’t know anything.”
Most air bases had virtually no defenses, said Saadoun, who was also
stationed at Rashid air base. “They just gave us Kalashnikovs, not
even antiaircraft weapons. We asked, ‘Could you give us
[rocket-propelled grenade launchers]?’ They said no.”
Two weeks before Baghdad fell, the air base lost communications with
its command center a few miles away. Every two days, officers arrived
No Heart for Fight
“We were prepared to fight,” said Abdul Razzaq, the colonel whose men
voted to flee rather than defend Baghdad’s airport. A pudgy
43-year-old with a mat of graying hair that hugs his scalp like a
helmet, Abdul Razzaq has spent 23 years — more than half his life —
in the Iraqi armed forces.
Twenty days before the United States attacked Iraq, his men and
equipment moved from military bases to warehouses, schools and private
Unlike most other commanders interviewed, Abdul Razzaq said his
soldiers had been well equipped, with heavy artillery, antitank
missiles and mortars for major combat, and RPGs and Kalashnikovs in
case the battle moved to the city’s streets.
“Even so,” the colonel said, “no one expected Bush to invade. We
expected all the Arab countries to stand against Bush and stop the
Abdul Razzaq said he commanded a regular army unit of 1,500 men;
neighbors said the colonel had been selected about two years ago to
lead a group of Hussein’s Fedayeen.
His unit’s mission was to protect a major highway interchange on the
edge of Baghdad, one of the positions generally assigned to the
trusted, more elite Iraqi forces during the war. Discussing the combat
action, Abdul Razzaq frequently referred to the role of the Fedayeen.
In the first days of fighting, the news from the south heartened his
men, Abdul Razzaq said in an interview in his spacious home in a
walled Baghdad neighborhood.
“All the news was very good. We were stopping the American forces,” he
said. “Spirits were high among the soldiers in Baghdad. They were
motivated to defend the city.”
But soon after the Americans battled their way into the airport, Abdul
Razzaq said, men began deserting. About half of his remaining men
deserted the unit; the other half hid in abandoned buildings lining
the airport road.
“Some of the generals fled,” he said. “That made me upset. It was
frustrating for us. The Republican Guard was not fighting.”
On the night of April 7, he received his final command: Continue
fighting against the enemy.
His reply, “Yes, we’ll do it.”
“We weren’t convinced. We didn’t do it,” said Abdul Razzaq, who then
collected his men and allowed them to make the final decision.
“Everyone went home.”
Last Wednesday, the once-respected colonel stood in line for five
sweltering hours, waiting for a $100 handout from U.S. military
forces, the token payment the Americans began distributing last week
to the thousands of unemployed senior military officers across Iraq.
Lower-ranking officers and soldiers will receive their payments over
the next several weeks, U.S. officials said.
Abdul Razzaq said he now lives in fear of retribution, not only from
Americans but from Iraqis, because of his role in the military. He has
covered the address on his house and installed double bolts and locks
on his gates and doors.
“I feel ashamed and humiliated,” said the father of twin boys and two
girls, wiping sweat from his face. “As [an] officer, I couldn’t reveal
how I felt to the soldiers. Even now I can’t describe it. It’s too
Special correspondent Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.