Iraqi forces down, not out

After gulf war, military significantly depleted

`They're a tissue paper tiger'

City combat, air defense among U.S. challenges

October 06, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Iraq's military is significantly smaller and more poorly equipped today than it was a decade ago when it was routed in the Persian Gulf war but it retains the ability to inflict casualties on American-led forces should President Bush decide to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein from power.

Still the largest military force in the gulf region, Iraq could blunt or at least slow a threatened attack with chemical and biological weapons, an urban warfare strategy and the fierce resistance of Republican Guard units and internal security forces who have the best training and equipment, American and British military analysts say.

The Iraqi army, made up mostly of conscripts and down to 430,000 men from a high of nearly 1 million at the time of the gulf war in 1991, is said by defectors to suffer from morale problems in all but its most elite units.

In addition, Iraq's 2,200 tanks date mostly to the Soviet era, the majority from the 1950s, and nearly all are in dire need of spare parts. The air force has about 300 aircraft that may be operational, but just a handful of the sophisticated Russian-built MiG-29 interceptors that could challenge U.S. attack planes.

Iraq has no navy other than about 90 armed patrol craft.

Charles Heyman, editor of the defense journal Jane's World Armies, said the Iraqi fighting force has so deteriorated that "we are talking about a military that has by and large imploded." And William M. Arkin, a former Army intelligence officer and a defense analyst, dismissed Hussein's armed forces: "They were a paper tiger in 1991, and they're a tissue paper tiger today."

Former Iraqi Army Brig. Gen. Najib al Salhi, an armor officer who defected in 1995, recalled that the allied attacks of the gulf war, coupled with the U.N. sanctions, left his force in near-total disrepair. "I couldn't trust a tank to go 20 miles," he recalled. The morale of his troops, he said, "was very bad," a view expressed by other, more recent defectors, according to Iraqi opposition officials.

While the Iraqi forces have steadily declined, the U.S. military has spent the past decade modernizing, charging ahead in everything from precision bombs and unmanned spy drones to digital communications that can speed targeting information to a combat pilot or a tank commander.

But the Iraqis, for their part, have built up a fairly sophisticated and widespread air defense system since the gulf war. While the United States has chipped away at the system with repeated bombings during the past decade, the Iraqis continue to rebuild and improve the system with some of the billions of dollars collected from illegal oil sales and shadowy international deals.

Hussein, despite U.N. sanctions and bans on what he can purchase, has a network of suppliers. The Chinese in the past several years provided fiber optic cables that speed communications and, unlike microwave dishes, are buried, making them hard to locate and destroy. The Yugoslav military, which fought the United States in an air war over Kosovo in 1999, shared technical expertise with the Iraqis on evading and deceiving American pilots, defense officials said.

The North Koreans are suspected of shipping missiles or their components to Iraq. Ukraine is suspected of selling sophisticated radar and missile systems that could endanger U.S. attack aircraft, a possibility the Bush administration is investigating, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in a recent news briefing.

The Iraqis are also becoming adept at shifting around their mobile air defense systems and shooting at American and British aircraft patrolling Iraq's no-fly zones, set up after the gulf war to protect the Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south. "It's very, very hard to find things that are mobile," Rumsfeld said.

While none of these hazards would be a "show stopper," in the words of one retired Army officer, they amount to the troubling unknowns of warfare that could delay an allied military advance and drive up the number of combat deaths.

The low state of the Iraqi military "is a piece of the puzzle, but it's not the whole puzzle," said John Hillen, a defense analyst who served as an Army infantry officer during the gulf war. "The other piece is, Will they fight? I'm not sure if anyone has a good handle on that."

Large elite force

About 20 percent of the Iraqi Army, some 80,0000 men, makes up the Republican Guard or the Special Republican Guard, Hussein's personal security force. Many of the soldiers have kinship ties to the regime and receive the best equipment, such as the comparatively modern Russian T-72 tank. These soldiers protect the approaches to Baghdad and Hussein himself.

In addition, there are three paramilitary units that along with security and border guards total 24,000 men. Then there are Hussein's Fedayeen or "Men of Sacrifice," some 18,000 to 20,000 young soldiers who patrol Baghdad and have executed those disloyal to the regime.

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