WASHINGTON -- A key to victory over Iraq may be destructio of the much-publicized Republican Guard, an elite outfit that started as protector of the Baghdad regime and grew into a heavily armored offensive force during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
U.S. military briefing officers in Washington and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, said that the guard numbered 150,000 troops and that "successful" bombing strikes were being run against their widely dispersed positions. No definition of "successful" was given.
The units, mostly held in reserve between the Kuwaiti border and the Iraqi port of Basra, have been under attack by formations of B-52 bombers. Each bomber can carry 51 bombs of either the 500-pound or 750-pound type, the Air Force says.
Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, the military operations director, told reporters at the Pentagon Friday that full damage assessments were not yet in hand but that he thought the bombing was having "significant impact."
The Republican Guard, sometimes called the Presidential Guard Force, has been expanded to eight combat divisions from six in recent months.
Two divisions are said to be in the Baghdad vicinity as protectors of President Saddam Hussein, while six are poised near Kuwait to reinforce defenders wherever U.S. and allied ground forces may punch through their lines in a land offensive.
Michael Eisenstadt, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the guard was formed in 1963 and deployed in and around Baghdad "to defend the regime against any coup."
It was a sort of Praetorian Guard, like those that protected Roman emperors, said William Quandt, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. He said he understood that officers had been recruited mainly from Mr. Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, and were "politically reliable" Sunni Muslims.
Mr. Eisenstadt said that during the 1980s, the Republican Guard had to be detached from Hussein-protection duty and thrown into the Iran-Iraq war to blunt Iranian attacks.
It was thus greatly expanded in the mid-1980s and developed into an offensive force. "It earned its laurels," he said, when it recaptured Faw, on the Persian Gulf below Basra, in 1988, in one of the war's major turning points.
The guard received preferential treatment in equipment, training, pay and conditions of service, Mr. Eisenstadt said.
Most, if not all, of Iraq's estimated 500 Soviet T-72 tanks -- the best it has -- are in guard units. Iraq has an estimated 5,500 tanks in all, mainly older Soviet models.
The Republican Guard -- described by Mr. Eisenstadt as the "backbone" of the Iraqi army -- has armored, mechanized, infantry and commando units.
It is understood that a guard armored battalion has four companies with a total of 165 to 180 tanks, while other army battalions have three companies with a total of 120 to 135 tanks. Guard outfits also have more guns in their artillery units.
Military sources here see the six divisions near the Kuwaiti border as a force to rush to the aid of less capable divisions dug in on the border with Saudi Arabia when allied offensives start.
Thus, isolating guard divisions from supplies and from forward units has become a top-priority objective of the allied air campaign.