Trainor Says Iraq War at ’Tipping Point,’ With Iraqi Forces Decimated; All-Out Defense of Baghdad Unlikely

April 4, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Former three-star Marine Corps General Bernard Trainor says that the Iraq war is now at a “tipping point,” with the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard forces virtually decimated by U.S. firepower. With U.S. Army and Marine forces on the outskirts of Baghdad, Trainor says he believes U.S. units will probe the capital’s defenses and wait to see if the regime “implodes.” In any event, Trainor says, there is no sign that the Iraqis are planning an all-out defense of Baghdad.

Trainor, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says he continues to fault Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for assuming that the Shiites in southern Iraq would rise up. That assumption led to the “light” force level that, he says, hampered the advance.

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He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 4, 2003.

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What’s your thumbnail view of the war now? It looks like it is about over, doesn’t it?

I think we are at the tipping point. Let me explain by looking at the key fears that we faced when we went in.

No. 1 was chemical weapons. No. 2 was the concern that the Iraqis might ignite the oil fields in the south around Basra and up north in the Kirkuk and Mosul area. No. 3 was the danger of the dams being blown, particularly the one that’s near Karbala, which would have flooded the Euphrates Valley, where U.S. Army forces were pushing toward Baghdad. And the other fear was that [the Iraqis] would cut the bridges across the Euphrates River to interdict [U.S.] supply lines. Of all those fears, it was only the last one that came to pass, and even that in only a limited way.

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They didn’t blow the bridges, but they did set up strong points at the river crossings and populated areas to do two things: to keep the Shiite population under the iron control of the security forces, and to ambush and harass our supply lines. They were temporarily successful in doing that. Notwithstanding that, the movement of both the [U.S.] Army and the Marines was really spectacular when you consider how short this war has been.

And then we came up to the position known as the Red Zone, roughly the 50-mile radius from Baghdad. That’s where the Republican Guard units were located. The thinking was, if the Iraqis were going to use chemical weapons, that’s where they would do it. Well, there has been no [use of] chemical weapons as of Friday. No dams were blown. The fires in the oil fields in the south were minor and taken care of. And most of all, the air power from the coalition aircraft, the ground power from the Army and Marine forces, and their speed of maneuver absolutely overwhelmed the Republican Guard.

The Guard has been degraded to the point of ineffectiveness. As a result, now you have the U.S. taking the Saddam Hussein International Airport, which doesn’t have much military value at this point. It will subsequently. At this point, it is symbolic. It’s a humiliation for Saddam Hussein to have his international airport, with his name on it, fall virtually without a fight, to the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, the other part of the pincer movement, the Marines [attacking from the southeast], has reached the outskirts of Baghdad also.

Why did the Iraqis not do the things you said the U.S. feared— floods, burning oil fields, blowing up bridges?

We have the indication that some of the oil fields were rigged for explosives. A lot of the bridges were rigged for explosives. We don’t know about the dams. But the Special Forces moved in to seize the dams, at least the critical ones, early on. I can only think that the field commanders were perhaps hesitant to set off the explosives. Although, given the way that the Fedayeen irregulars, who turned these Euphrates Valley towns into citadels, fought bitterly, one would have thought that they would also have carried out the orders to blow the bridges and so forth. The only thing I can think of was that they were hit by such massive firepower from the air and the ground, and the forces overwhelmed them so quickly, that they did not have a chance to do it.

What happens now? Do U.S. forces rush into Baghdad?

We certainly have enough forces there right now to launch selective action inside of Baghdad. In addition, the Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division, the heavy division that was supposed to operate from Turkey, has started to land troops and equipment in Kuwait. Probably in the next couple of days, they’ll have at least a brigade ready to go into action in the Baghdad area.

But I think what the coalition command is going to do right now is to see whether the Iraqi administration implodes. The Republican Guard is just about out of the game. There are stragglers who have gone back into Baghdad. But they are of no particular value. So therefore the defense of Baghdad depends on the Special Republican Guard— these are the people most loyal to Saddam Hussein, they are part of his Tikriti tribe [from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit]. There are about 15,000 of them. And then there are the internal security forces of various types which may number up to another 40,000. They are armed with light weapons. If they decide to fight, it could be nasty. However, the indications from the open press are that there are really no defenses in Baghdad. Everything seems to be normal. Small militia groups are at street corners and key intersections. But there is no indication they are turning Baghdad into a fortress.

So, I think there will be some probing movements to kind of induce people to surrender. And [U.S. troops] will feel the area out to see if we are going to have to fight for Baghdad or not. In the meantime, a massive psychological warfare program will be launched to get people to give themselves up.

What would mark a victory?

Taking control of the city. And the way you take control of the city is [via] selective attacks. It won’t be [like] the Russians blundering into Grozny [the capital of Chechnya]; or the Germans trying to take Leningrad and Stalingrad [in World War II]. You will first of all go after known and suspected military and political nodes within the city. And you would also go after the normal services that provide life to any city: the communications center, the transportation hubs, the electrical grid, the waterworks— all the things that provide the wherewithal for a city [to function]. Having done that, you can declare a victory and start to set up an alternate government. Any of the holdouts will only wither on the vine.

Now, historically, when an army is reduced to defending a city without the chance for relief, such as was the case in Stalingrad and in Grozny, what happens is that the people manning the barricades realize the jig is up and the population does also and tries to convince [the defenders] to quit. The classic case of that was in China in 1948 when Mao and the Chinese communists took the Chinese countryside and the Kuomintang [the Nationalist forces] was forced back into the cities and they just melted away, gave up, and some actually defected to the communists.

So, what’s happened in Iraq? We really control everything south of Baghdad, including Najaf and Nasiriya. The only place that is a holdout is Basra, where the British are maintaining a siege and doing things in a uniquely British way.

There are Iraqi forces in the north?

Yes. But they are not really players. They are Republican Guard units and we are pummeling them. If they stay in place, they will be destroyed from the air. If they move, they will be destroyed from the air even quicker. Meantime, the Kurdish pesh merga [fighters] and the U.S. Special Forces are maintaining stability up in that region and slowly moving against the Republican Guard forces. It looks as if the oil fields in that part of the country are going to be spared.

How long before a coalition victory?

I can’t say because, at the present time, we don’t know what the response will be in Baghdad. The indications are, as near as I can read the tea leaves, the [ruling] Ba’athist Party will fold. There may be a few holdouts but, generally speaking, Baghdad will not become a bloody battlefield. I think [the Iraqis] are going to pack it in. And if they don’t, looking at all the information available from public sources, [they will mount] spotty defenses as opposed to an all-out defense of the city. And certainly the population of Baghdad does not want to see its city destroyed. They are not going to man the barricades singing the Marseillaise.

You were one of the former military men who asserted that the number of coalition forces on the ground at the start of the war was too low. You pointed out also that the Shiites did not rush into the streets to welcome the troops, as some thought they would. Does the success of the invasion prove that the plan endorsed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the right plan, or were the Republican Guards weaker than most thought?

[The Guard was] made weak by the pounding from the air. Rumsfeld’s plan was based on the assumption that the Shiites would rise up and support us. Therefore, you could go with the light forces. There was a certain legitimacy to that. But what he did not take into account— and what we did not take into account— was that the Iraqis set up these citadels in the populated areas with the Fedayeen Saddam to keep control of the Shiites so they did not rise up, and also to interdict the supply lines.

In practical terms of the force being too light, it was light to the extent of lacking an armored cavalry regiment, which under normal circumstances would provide route security. As a result, we had to peel off combat forces to take care of what an armored cavalry regiment could have done.

So Rumsfeld should be faulted for that. In military planning, you look at the end of your planning process and ask: “If any of my assumptions are wrong, does this critically affect my plan?” In this instance— maybe it did not “critically affect” the plan— but [the lack of an armored cavalry regiment] did pose a major problem. If you have an assumption that is wrong, then you have an alternate plan, and [Defense Department officials] failed to do that. I would still criticize them for that.

The number of U.S. casualties seems low.

The reason for that was firepower. If [U.S. forces] ran into resistance, they would just unload from the tanks, the armored personnel carriers, and from the air, both fixed-wing air and helicopters. It absolutely devastated the Republican Guard. It just broke them up.

And Iraq’s Soviet-built tanks appeared to be no match for U.S. Abrams tanks?

The best tank the Iraqis had was the T-72, and the Abrams tank is almost invulnerable to the T-72 tank fire. The T-72 can fire a mile; the Abrams, two miles. It takes five seconds to recycle a round in the T-72, and the Abrams can get three rounds off in the same period of time. It was no match at all. It was like Joe Louis against a high-school boxing champ.

I am surprised by the small number of Iraqi surrenders.

I think a lot of them were killed and a lot took off their uniforms and just fled. [Coalition forces] have caught quite a few. Just recently, the Marines captured 2,500 prisoners.

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