Key Iraqi force best trained, most stubborn

Republican Guard's status closely linked to survival of Hussein's regime

`They could hurt us a little bit'

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Of all Saddam Hussein's military forces, the Republican Guard divisions that U.S.-led forces now face on the outskirts of Baghdad are the best equipped, most loyal and most ruthless.

The Republican Guard's strength is estimated at more than 80,000 soldiers, is organized into six divisions and includes more of Hussein's fellow Sunni Muslim tribesmen than during the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

Many of the guard's commanders are relatives of Hussein, and its overall commander is the Iraqi leader's son Qusai. Its special status is entwined with the survival of the regime. Unlike regular army units, the Republican Guard does not answer to the country's Defense Ministry but to the State Special Security Ministry, meaning it is more tied to Hussein's survival.

Recruits are paid about $40 per month, compared with the $5 monthly salary for a civil servant with a college degree. And the soldiers receive bonuses, new cars and subsidized housing.

"You could get yourself caught up in a little bit of a gunfight with these guys," said a retired senior U.S. Army general, who fought in the gulf war and requested anonymity. "They could hurt us a little bit. I don't buy the argument they've been obliterated by 10 years of sanctions."

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., who wrote the official Army history of the gulf war, marveled at the hardiness of the Republican Guard units in surviving 38 days of aerial bombardment in 1991.

"The best-trained Iraqi units endured several weeks of allied air bombardment with will unbroken and combat capability intact," Scales wrote in Yellow Smoke, The Future of Land Warfare for America's Military. Scales found that these units had "considerable capacity" to adapt on the battlefield, noting that some of them quickly shifted their defensive positions in the opening hours of the war's ground campaign.

Although Army forces quickly destroyed some of the Republican Guard divisions, "sacrifice by these units provided time for the remainder of the Republican Guard to escape," Scales wrote.

Of the guard's six divisions, its three armored divisions are arrayed south of Baghdad - Medina, Hammurabi and al Nida - all being bombed once again by U.S. warplanes and seemingly gearing up for a fight with the Army's 3rd Armored Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

These Republican Guard units survived the gulf war to terrorize the Iraqi Kurds in the northern part of Iraq and the Shiites in the south.

The Medina was bloodied by U.S. forces during the gulf war and lost about half its combat power. Reassigned south of Baghdad six years ago after being deployed to the north to keep its thumb on the Kurds, the division started the current war with about 65 percent of its 1991 strength, said Pentagon officials.

Equipped with fairly sophisticated Russian T-72 tanks, the division has little in the way of air defenses and engineering support, officials said. The division is considered to have limited numbers of AT-4 and AT-5 anti-tank guided missiles and SA-14 shoulder-fired missiles.

The Hammurabi is considered one of Iraq's best combat divisions and has been ordered to defend the western approaches to Baghdad. And though it, too, has the T-72 as its primary tank, it also has 43 of the less modern T-62 and a half-dozen of the older Russian tanks, the T-54/55.

The division was the spearhead in Hussein's efforts in 1991 to crush Shiite rebels on the streets of the southern city of Basra, a bloody two-day offensive that was overseen by Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of Hussein's commanders, who earned the name "Chemical Ali" for using chemical weapons against the Kurds in the north.

"The Guards maimed and slaughtered thousands of people, and Ali Hassan insisted that piles of bodies and severed limbs be left unburied throughout Basra and its surrounding villages," former CIA analyst Kenneth M. Pollack wrote in his recent book on Iraq, The Threatening Storm.

While the Hammurabi Division swept through Basra, al Nida Division joined other Iraqi units in crushing Shiite revolts in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf shortly after the gulf war ended. Pollack wrote that thousands of civilians were killed, and some of the mosques show heavy damage from tank fire.

Some of al Nida's tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed during the December 1998 "Desert Fox" attacks by U.S. warplanes.

Although Pentagon officials do not have a firm handle on the strength of all Republican Guard divisions, it estimates that al Nida Division is among the best equipped and started the war with 202 T-72 tanks and 172 other armored vehicles.

The Republican Guard also has three infantry divisions, the Baghdad, the Nebuchadnezzar and the Adnan. The Baghdad, which is also being bombed by coalition aircraft, is around Kut, a city U.S. Marines seem to be closing on. The Nebuchadnezzar is defending the northern entrances to Baghdad, although some of its soldiers have been captured by U.S. soldiers south of the city. And the Adnan is north of Baghdad, near Tikrit, Hussein's hometown about 100 miles to the north. But some reports say the division is moving south toward the capital.

Separate but related is a military force of about 20,000 stationed within Baghdad and known as the Special Republican Guard. It is Hussein's personal security force. Many of its soldiers come from the area around Tikrit, and it also comes under the command of Hussein's son Qusai.

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