Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 4, 2003

Volunteers for Iraq: Propaganda Value Trumps Military Value

Analysis. By Mark Kagan, GIS. The hundreds (some, including the Iraqi Government, claim thousands) of volunteers who are now traveling to Iraq from other Arab countries to fight the US and British invasion forces are hoping to emulate the Arab and Muslim volunteers who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Some of these volunteers may even be veterans of that earlier conflict, especially those from Yemen and Saudi Arabia, though they are now likely to be in their forties and fifties.

The volunteers also include many Iraqi expatriates, most of whom left Iraq to escape the repressive rule of Pres. Saddam Hussein. Their nationalist and patriotic emotions have been sufficiently aroused to compel them to return to defend their country against foreign invaders, despite their fear and loathing of Saddam.

Television images of the volunteers demonstrating and chanting pro-Saddam slogans before getting on buses in Jordan and Syria which were to take them to Iraq have provided great propaganda TV for the Iraqi Government. Indeed, the impact of those images on the media and information war that is being fought simultaneously with the military war should not be dismissed. However, their military impact and even their propaganda value after they are sent out to fight will likely be minimal at best.

The foreign volunteers who flocked to Afghanistan fought in a very different war, in a very different country, against a very different enemy, which used very different tactics, and whose levels of training, motivation, discipline and leadership were much lower than those of the US and British forces. They also were surrounded by Afghan and foreign volunteer veterans who could teach them to fight and survive, although there are no estimates of how many thousands of volunteers were killed during the learning process in their first few weeks or months in Afghanistan.

Even so, it has been generally overlooked and forgotten that the Soviets and their Afghan Government allies had been winning the war against the Afghan rebels until the United States started supplying the rebels with money, training and equipment. That still didn’t prove sufficient until the United States began supplying the rebels with General Dynamics Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles, which was a very controversial decision at the time in the US Government. The Stinger missiles robbed the Soviets of their ability to strike with impunity at the rebels with attack helicopters and close air support fixed-wing aircraft and turned the tide in favor of the Afghan rebels, though it still took years before the Soviets left the country. [Significantly, even with that boost to the mujahedin image in the Afghan war, the real military impact was that the Soviet forces remained undefeated by the guerillas arrayed against them; they withdrew when conditions within the USSR compelled them to do so. The Soviet Union was collapsing, not because of the Afghan war, but for other reasons.]

Most of the foreign volunteers now going to Iraq have no military training, or if they did serve in their respective native countries’ armed forces, it was highly unlikely that their training and experience were applicable to the war being fought in Iraq. Although they speak Arabic, many of them speak dialects that are almost mutually unintelligible to each other, and they won’t have much time to learn. Although they are Arabs, they won’t necessarily fit in among the population of Iraq, which is far more developed and urbanized than Afghanistan.

Furthermore, even if time was not a factor in this rapid-paced war, the volunteers are not likely to get much training, if any, from the Iraqi authorities and it is not likely to turn them into combat-effective units, based on the performance of Iraqi irregular and paramilitary forces so far.

Those forces have been a surprise for Allied troops in Iraq, and they have put up fierce and unexpected resistance in various places, notably in the city of Basra. However, “fierce” has not translated into effective, except that in terms of embarrassing US and British officials and military commanders, and providing the Iraqi government with propaganda victories. However, the reality is that the irregular and paramilitary fighters have so far turned out to be mostly a nuisance to US and British troops, who have killed hundreds of them while losing only a handful of killed or wounded.

To date, US and British soldiers who have fought the Iraqi irregulars have observed that while they had often demonstrated suicidal bravery they had also demonstrated suicidal tactics, and that they “can’t shoot straight either”. That may change in the future — the first terrorist suicide bombing attack of the war on March 22, 2003 (by Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq), and the first Iraqi Government-oriented suicide bombing against Coalition forces on March 29, 2003, may be a portent of future developments — but there is thus no reason, at this time, to expect that the foreign volunteers would perform much more effectively than the Iraqis.

In fact, the Iraqi paramilitary and irregular fighters have been a far greater threat to Iraqi civilians — often using them as human shields — and thereby conforming to their traditional rôle as repressive elements of President Hussein’s Government.

The Iraqi expatriates returning to Iraq in a patriotic fervor to fight for their country would most likely experience even shorter terms of service than the foreign volunteers, if they get to fight at all. Although they are presenting a welcome propaganda coup for the Iraqi Government, Iraqi Ba’ath Party officials would generally view the Iraqi expatriates with suspicion because of the reasons that caused them to leave Iraq in the first place. The expatriates will therefore either be shipped off to the most exposed fronts in the coming days, where Allied firepower, poor Iraqi military capabilities and the expatriates’ lack of military training will ensure their early demise. Others will be drafted into the suicide battalions and “asked” to strap on explosives and approach Allied troops and blow themselves up. Finally, if they find themselves thrown into house-to-house fighting in Baghdad, they will be at a serious disadvantage against US and British troops who have been trained in urban warfare.

However, this all appears to be of little importance to the Iraqi Government, which in any case has consistently demonstrated that it believes that merely giving someone a gun and a uniform and a few hours of training turns them into a soldier or an urban guerilla. The true value of the foreign volunteers and the returning Iraqi expatriates is the ammunition they provide the Government in the propaganda war being waged for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and in the Arab world.