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･ Rout Was Inevitable, Iraqis Say
A Foe That Collapsed From Within
Former Iraqi Officers Say Internal Divisions, Ineptitude Ensured Defeat
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 home.
"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 biological weapons.
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 metal.
"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 commanders.
"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 him."
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 defense.
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 gifts.
"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 recalled.
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 die."
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 hunkered down.
"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 with handwritten messages and verbal reports on the status of the war, Saadoun said. The last messenger arrived two days before Baghdad fell.
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 homes.
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 war."
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 painful."
Special correspondent Souad Mekhennet contributed to this report.