Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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February 26, 2003

Saddam’s Further Preparations For War: Forces in Position; Commanders Named; Early Start Options Open

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Analyst, GIS. Iraq seems to have completed the last phase of war preparations over the week or so up to February 25, 2003. These preparations go beyond a new cycle of redeployment of troops and assets to include the nomination of senior commanders and additional arrangements by Saddam for the case of a major US-led offensive. These preparations were based on the latest round of instructions by Pres. Saddam Hussein during the weekend of February 7-9, 2003.

Saddam gathered his most senior aides and told them that the February 4, 2003, United Nations Security Council (UNSC) session had convinced him war was inevitable and imminent. He stressed that one of the primary objectives of the US forces would be his assassination. Therefore, senior Arab officials disclosed, he intended “to disappear immediately the war breaks out and would cut off completely his contacts with the leadership” so that neither electronic monitoring nor human traitors could betray him to the US. At the same time, the officials noted, Saddam gave his senior aides instructions “that enable the commanders of corps and divisions to deal with the developments of a US war without waiting for his orders.” Saddam also implied that “he has chosen Qusay as his successor if he disappears totally and for good”, and that both the aides and the senior commanders “can refer to ... Qusay as the final authority during the period of his absence”. Saddam informed his aides that only Qusay would have the means of knowing Saddam’s whereabouts as necessary.

In the first phase, completed around February 18-19, 2003, Iraqi forces were withdrawn from the areas close to the Jordanian and Kuwaiti borders. The new force deployment was in accordance with Saddam’s latest “confrontation plan” which focuses on Baghdad, the oil region in Kurdistan, and Saddam’s hometown Tikrit, and from where most of the Republican Guard had been recruited. The senior Arab officials added that “the élite forces, specifically the Republican Guards, would be deployed in Baghdad and the sensitive points outside it”. Former Iraqi generals concurred, assessing that “a US war may have a devastating effect on the Iraqi Army dividing it on the basis of region, tribe, and sect. This will deny the country the only institution that guarantees its unity and prevents civil wars from breaking out”. They expect the regular army of about 300,000 troops to collapse without much fighting, while the élite forces — the Republican Guard of approximately 100,000 troops and especially the Special Republican Guard of approximately 40,000 troops — would remain loyal and fight in Baghdad and in a protracted insurgency afterwards. These highly trained élite forces are completely and fiercely loyal to both Qusay and Saddam, and their morale is high.

Most significant were the changes, completed by February 21, 2003, in the Iraqi High Command in the north. Saddam nominated his key confidantes as commanders of the key sectors in Kurdistan. Deputy Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) Chief Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri was nominated the commander of the Mosul military sector, Hisham Ali Hassan (the son of Ali Hassan al-Majid, the commander of southern Iraq) was made the commander of the forces in Kalak Yasin Agha (half way between Arbil and Mosul), and Vice-President Taha Yasin Ramadan was nominated the commander of the forces in Kirkuk. These nominations come at a time of markedly intensified activities of Turkish military intelligence and special forces among the Kurds and Turcomans of northern Iraq, as well as the deployment of the Iranian-controlled Shiite brigade inside Iraqi Kurdistan. By February 23-24, 2003, Turkish military intelligence and special forces were distributing weapons to the Turcomans in northern Iraq and organizing their own anti-Kurdish militias. The areas where the Turks were most active was challenging the Kurdish forces the US is supporting and expecting to fight the Iraqi Armed Forces. To a great extent, the Turcoman forces have created  a buffer area between Saddam’s forces and “America’s Kurds”.

Meanwhile, the Iran-sponsored Shi’ites intensified their activities in southern Iraq as well. “Shi’ite Muslims of southern Iraq will mount an uprising against Saddam Hussein as soon as the American and British troops invade,” noted a recent traveler from Najaf. He stressed that “the [Shi’ite] intifadah in the towns and villages of the south” will be “largely spontaneous” and as much anti-US as anti-Saddam. Starting February 20, 2003, the local forces have been increasingly helped by the infiltration of the second brigade of the Iran-sponsored al-Badr Corps. The Iranian-Arab and Iraqi troops bring with them large quantities of weapons and supplies for the popular forces throughout southern Iraq. On February 24, 2003, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim warned the West against equating the fervent anti-Saddam hatred of the Shi’ites with pro-Americanism. He expected the Shi’ites to rebel against both the Iraqi and the US forces. Addressing the prospects of a US-nominated government in post-war Baghdad, Ayatollah al-Hakim warned that “a US-led government would offend the national and religious sensitivity. There would be violence.”

Most intriguing, however, was the concurrent deployment of the Iraqi Air Force. Most of the Iraqi tactical combat aircraft usually deployed in the greater Baghdad area were transferred to the forward air bases near H-3, H-2, H-1 and Ghalaysan, all close to the Jordanian border. This was the first major deployment of the Iraqi Air Force since the forward deployment, in mid-October 2002, of operational high-performance fighter-bombers, particularly long-range AMD Mirage F-1s, as well as a few L-29s converted into unmanned delivery vehicles (UAVs) for biological weapons, to the Jal al-Batan air base in south-western Iraq.

The current disposition of the Iraqi Air Force is optimized for the launching of swift surprise attacks against the center and southern parts of Israel. Because the attacking Iraqi aircraft would have to fly over Jordan, and at times also Saudi Arabia, before reaching Israel, Baghdad hopes that political considerations would slow down the response of the Israeli Air Force, thus giving a few of the Iraqi aircraft a chance to strike inside Israel. Baghdad is convinced that the mere existence of any such surprise strike, irrespective of its ultimate success, would flare-up the Arab Israeli war because the Israeli Air Force would, at the very least, retaliate against the Iraqi forward air bases.

The viability of the aerial strike option as a catalyst for war against Israel was reinforced on February 23, 2003, with the sudden publication in all Iraqi media that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat had sent Saddam Hussein a congratulatory letter in commemoration of Eid al-Adha [February, 12-13, 2003]. In the letter, Arafat wrote that the Palestinians “pray to God to enhance the ties of fraternity, solidarity and cooperation that serve our interests, rights, nation, and the future of our generations and spare us all the dangers that threaten us in our region”. Arafat called on Saddam and the Iraqis “to alleviate the suffering of our steadfast and enduring people and enhance our firm and continuous steadfastness to confront the Israeli war, aggression, killing, and machine of destruction. The support of our brother [Saddam] will enable us to foil all attempts and plans of the Government of Israel, the occupying power, that aims to destroy the peace process and the structures, foundations, and institutions of our Palestinian National Authority. ... All forms of support from you at these difficult and critical times will enable us to continue our endurance and steadfastness until we end the occupation of our holy Jerusalem and our Islamic and Christian places. Your support will also enable us to practice our legitimate and firm rights according to the pertinent international resolutions, foremost of which is the right of self-determination, the right of return, and the establishment of our independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

The Iraqi coverage of the letter noted approvingly that Arafat hinted on the imperative of military intervention — all forms of support — and the goal of destroying Israel by unconditionally implementing “the right of return”. After all, for Baghdad the demand by UN weapons inspector Hans Blix to destroy the Al-Samoud-2 ballistic missiles is a lose-lose option: If Iraq destroyed the missiles it would both deprive itself of a major element in its arsenal on the eve of a war, and will provide the US with a “smoking gun” regarding major violations and thus provide the excuse for war. Refusal to destroy the Al-Samoud-2 missiles — most of which are currently arrayed against Kuwait with at least one battery equipped with chemical warheads — would certainly lead to war. Saddam said on February 24, 2003, that he would not destroy the weapons.

So, Saddam is in a tight corner. On the other hand, if Iraq strikes fast it could catch the US off balance: before the deployment of the forces in Turkey was completed, and before the latest round of US and UK reinforcements reached the Middle East, and with most of the US forces still in training grounds rather than forward strike deployments. Hence, is Arafat’s letter meant to provide the excuse Saddam needs to unleash the preemptive regional war?