IRAQ: Iraq’s Prewar Military Capabilities

February 03, 2005

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How strong was the Iraqi military before the war began?

Western military experts generally estimated that in early 2003, Iraq’s armed forces were down to about 40% of their 1991 Gulf War levels, when they fielded some 1 million troops. International sanctions had kept Iraq from maintaining or modernizing outdated weapons and equipment, and Iraqi soldiers lacked training in modern techniques of war.

But experts had also said the Iraqi military retained significant force, especially in the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard. Despite its shortcomings, some experts had considered it the most effective military force in the Gulf region.

How was the Iraqi Army organized?

It was led by Saddam Hussein, the supreme armed forces commander, and divided geographically into four regional commands. It had three main components: the regular army, the Republican Guard, and the Special Republican Guard.

  • The regular army was thought to have between 300,000 and 350,000 men organized into five corps and 16 divisions. Two-thirds of the soldiers were conscripts, and the majority of the weapons were outdated, experts said. U.S. war planners had predicted that many of these troops would surrender quickly.
  • The Republican Guard was believed to have between 60,000 and 70,000 men, organized into six divisions. Compared with the regular troops, it was considered an elite force of mostly career soldiers with better equipment, training and pay, and was expected to put up more of a fight. The Guard fell directly under the control of Saddam’s son Qusay and was expected to defend Baghdad, Tikrit, and other regime strongholds.
  • The elite Special Republican Guard was thought to number some 15,000 men drawn from the most loyal of the regime’s supporters. Responsible for protecting the president and his family, VIPs, and presidential installations, the unit answered directly to Qusay. It had its own heavy armored brigade and own air defense command unit. To guard against coups d’etat from less loyal forces, the Special Republican Guard was generally the only part of the army permitted within central Baghdad.

What happened when combat began?

U.S. planners’ predictions about the regular Iraqi Army proved largely correct. One difference: far fewer soldiers surrendered than predicted (only about 7,000 gave themselves up to U.S. forces, compared with 80,000 in the first Gulf War). Many more soldiers appeared to have taken off their uniforms and melted back into the population.

In a surprise, major battles with the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard never fully materialized. After days of punishing air strikes, the elite units protecting the outskirts of Baghdad were dispersed and beaten back easily by U.S. forces. Challenging resistance, on the other hand, came from non-uniformed militias and paramilitaries, such as the Fedayeen Saddam.

What happened to all the soldiers?

It’s difficult to know. The Wall Street Journal, drawing from U.S. and British military reports, estimates that some 3,160 Iraqi soldiers were killed as of April 15. A total of some 13,800 were captured by U.S. and British troops. Many more apparently just removed their uniforms and went home; others, especially higher ranking officers, may have escaped to Syria or other nations.

Who commanded the Iraqi military?

Before the war started, the Iraqi government reported that Saddam had control of Iraq’s aviation, air defenses, and surface-to-surface missiles. Qusay was responsible for the defense of Baghdad and Tikrit. Ali Hassan al-Majid, known by Iraqi opponents of the government as "Chemical Ali" because they say he oversaw a chemical attack against the Kurds, commanded the south. Izzat Ibrahim, a trusted deputy and vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council, commanded of the northern region. Mazban Khader Hadi, a member of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, controlled a region in the center.

Where are these top leaders now?

Chemical Ali was believed killed in a bomb strike in Basra. The fates of the rest, including Saddam, remained unknown in mid-April.

How much functioning military equipment did Iraq’s army have?

Iraq was thought to have between 1,800 and 2,000 tanks in working order, compared with at least 5,500 before the 1991 Gulf War. About 700 tanks were thought to be relatively capable Soviet T-72’s, but they were outmatched by U.S. equipment. The T-72’s, for example, lack adequate night-vision equipment and have half the range of an American M1A1 Abrams tank, which in 1991 hit Iraqi tanks from as far as 1.9 miles away.

Iraq was thought to have about 3,700 additional armored vehicles, though the fleet was aging and outdated. U.S. planners believed Iraq also had approximately 2,300 artillery pieces, including some relatively sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles, and tens of thousands of machine guns and other small arms.

What was the state of Iraq’s Air Force and air defenses?

The country was believed to have about 300 combat aircraft, although many planes were thought to have little, if any, effective combat capability. In fact, no Iraqi combat aircraft flew in the conflict. Its major combat aircraft included the French Mirage F-1 and the Russian-built MIG-23, 21, and 29. It also had some 350 helicopters, about 80 of which were armed.

Iraq had an extensive air defense force, a 15,000-man unit that was believed to have more than 850 surface-to-air missile launchers and some 4,000 anti-aircraft guns. U.S. experts had disagreed about the effectiveness of this force, with some believing it would pose a significant threat to U.S. planes flying at low altitudes. In the end, it had little effect on U.S. airpower: an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter was downed, apparently by small-arms fire, on March 24, and an Iraqi surface-to-air missile shot down an A-10 "Warthog" warplane near Baghdad on April 8. The A-10 pilot was rescued shortly after the plane went down, and the Apache’s two crewmen, after being held prisoner with 5 other Americans, were freed on April 13.

An F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet was downed near Tikrit on April 7. A Pentagon investigation of the incident is under way to determine if enemy fire caused the crash, which killed the two-man crew.

Did Saddam attempt to use his security apparatus to keep control during a conflict?

Yes. Saddam controlled his regime through a complex, interlocking network of security and secret police forces that answered directly to his son Qusay and other top officials. The loyalty and fear generated by these 100,000 or more agents kept him in power, and the agents appear to have been used to compel Iraqis to fight.

What were some of the key security forces?

At the top of the security pyramid was the shadowy Special Security Organization (SSO), or al-Amn al-Khas, an ultra-loyal force of 2,000 to 5,000 men that was thought to play a major role in surveillance of all of the other security services. Controlled by Qusay, the SSO had its own military brigade that served as a rapid-response unit independent of the military establishment. It also controlled Saddam’s bodyguards and took responsibility for the most critical security tasks, Western experts said.

At least a dozen other security forces were thought to exist. Two overlapping security services, the Military Intelligence Service and the Military Security Service, monitored the army for loyalty, U.S. intelligence experts believed. On the local level, agents from the General Security Service (GSS), or al-Amn al-Amm, worked as the regime’s eyes and ears. The GSS monitored daily life in every town and village, and had more than 8,000 estimated agents, countless local informants, and its own paramilitary wing, according to military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

What about the Fedayeen Saddam and other militia forces?

U.S. forces faced more opposition than they had anticipated from guerrilla fighters with close ties to Saddam’s regime. Among them was the Fedayeen Saddam, or Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice, a paramilitary group with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fighters.

Did Iraq use chemical and biological weapons?

No. U.S. forces had prepared for attacks with mustard gas, sarin gas, VX, anthrax, smallpox, and other agents, and believed they might be hit. But U.S. intelligence said the threat had abated shortly after U.S. forces reached Baghdad, and most fighters shed their chemical suits.

Saddam did not use weapons of mass destruction during the 1991 Gulf War to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Central Intelligence Agency had predicted that he would be more willing to use chemical and biological weapons when his regime was the main target.

What other sort of defenses did Saddam use?

With its conventional military forces overpowered, Iraq relied heavily on guerrilla tactics. They included: mounting hit-and-run attacks by small groups of armed men; dressing soldiers as civilians; setting oil fires and burning oil wells; dispatching suicide bombers; faking surrenders; and using civilians as human shields.

Sources: U.S. Defense Department, Israeli Defense Forces, Center for Strategic and International Studies, GlobalSecurity.org, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations experts.

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