Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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March 31, 2003

Iraq Signifies Readiness to Engage Israel; Tests SSM Deployments in Western Desert

Exclusive. Analysis. With input from GIS resources in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Iraqi Administration of Pres. Saddam Hussein on the night of March 27-28, 2003, conducted what it regarded as a successful test to deploy and fire medium-range ballistic missiles against Israel. The failure of the US forces in the region to react against the test deployment has reportedly heartened Iraqi officials and those of neighboring Syria, which participated in the action.

It is now believed that Iraq would initiate operational firings of the missiles against Israel, with a high likelihood of the use of chemical warheads on some systems, as soon as Coalition military pressure reaches a climax around Baghdad. Such a move at that time by Iraq, assuming that Pres. Saddam gave the firing order, would attempt to forcibly divide Coalition forces from their main thrust at Baghdad, with the intent of loosening the Coalition grip on the capital.

The test Iraqi surface-to-surface (SSM) deployment (literally a probasila in terms of Soviet doctrine: a move forward until reaction, and then a tactical withdrawal) of March 27-28, 2003, showed that the US was, even before the final thrust at Baghdad, too tied down with its forces to switch air strikes against the mobile launch vehicles which were moved into Iraqi territory from Syria. USAF F-15 and F-16 aircraft were apparently diverted to cover the deployment, but too late to catch any of the Iraqi vehicles.

The Syrian Government was clearly entirely complicit with the Iraqi actions. The test deployment included Iraqi mobile launch vehicles for Scud-type medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), which had been deployed across the border from Iraq into Syria during the United Nations weapons inspections regime which led up to the US invasion of Iraq, in March 2003. This deployment was quite apart from the movement of the Iraqi strategic reserve into storage in the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, in the second half of 2002.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily noted, in an exclusive report, on October 28, 2002:

Iraq moved stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear matériel as well as key production machinery and key experts to the Hsishi compound near Kamishli, in Syria, along with strategic weapons, ammunition, military fuels and other defense matériel, gold reserves, national archival records and national art treasures. It is believed that the moves took place in late August and early September 2002.

GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reports during the week up to March 30, 2003, noted that the assets moving into Iraq from Syria now included:

There was no discernible movement of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) forces from the Lebanon’s Beqa’a region, nor of the extensive ballistic missile stocks which the IRGC maintains in the Beqa’a for use against Israel. The deployment into Iraq of HizbAllah forces was designed to support Iraqi Shi’ite forces against the US. Despite Coalition attempts to work with Iraqi opposition Shi’a forces against the Saddam forces, the Shi’ite fighters have largely remained hostile to both Saddam and the Coalition during the first two weeks of the war. Sources in and close to HizbAllah indicated that the mission of the Lebanese forces deployed through Syria into the Iraqi Western desert was solely against the Coalition at this point.

Until the deployment of March 27-28, 2003, the respective Australian and British Special Air Service Regiments (SAS) had been able to harass Iraqi deployments of mobile SSM units so that they could not achieve a coherent array to initiate attacks against Israel. This was regarded as one of the key successes of the early phase of the Coalition war against Iraq [see Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, March 28, 2003]. However, a statement on March 28, 2003, by British Prime Minister Tony Blair (following his Camp David meeting with US Pres. George W. Bush) to the effect that the major Iraqi base at H3 had been entirely neutralized was premature and incorrect.

Indeed, apart from the inability of the US to react rapidly and effectively to the probasila of Iraqi SSM forces on the night of March 27-28, 2003, there has been growing disenchantment reported among Australian and British SAS forces with their US counterparts in the Western desert of Iraq. Sources indicate that the Australian and UK forces felt that the US special forces lacked the skills required for the task. At the same time, most Israeli special forces, who had been operating for as much as two years in the region, have withdrawn because the US would not provide any IFF (identification, friend or foe) capability to the Israelis to ensure that they were not hit by US “friendly fire”. The US had insisted that the Israeli special forces operate only as attachments to the US special forces. The Israelis, like the Australians and British, felt that working with the US special forces jeopardized the safety and effectiveness of the missions, and refused this approach.

As a result, the Coalition forces were now denied the support of one of the most effective reconnaissance and guerilla capabilities with knowledge of the terrain and targets. It is not known whether all of the Jordanian special forces had also withdrawn for the same reason. They, too, had been operating in the area for some years, and were, like the Israelis, thoroughly familiar with the targets and terrain.

On March 30, 2003, Israeli Military Intelligence Director Maj.-Gen. Aaron Ze’evi -Farkash briefed the Knesset on the conflict and singled out “the unique, sacred work” of the Australian special forces in preventing missile attacks on Israel.

The entire operation in the Western desert has escaped Western media attention because the special forces units have not allowed journalists to accompany them. Similarly, the absence of “embedded media” reporting from the US Marine Corps artillery units deployed around an-Nasariyah, on the Tigris River, had, in the days leading up to March 30, 2003, enabled USMC firepower to devastate parts of the city in order to enable the bridges near the city to be used by Marine forces moving up toward Baghdad. In this, the Coalition had moved away, for the first time, from its careful policy of explicit and precise targeting of known military objectives in order to ensure the safety of movement of USMC forces across the Tigris.

The US Government continued to apply pressure on Israel not to strike at Iraqi targets in the Western desert, even if it was apparent that SSM units were being prepared for fire against Israeli targets. It is known that the Iraqi SSM forces have designated firing positions which they must reach from Syria in the Iraqi territory adjacent to the border. Syria has been insistent that all firings must be, and must appear to be, from Iraqi territory in order that Syria avoid retaliatory strikes by the Coalition or Israel. The vehicles must move to to the firing positions, elevate their flat-bed trucks and set whatever coordinates were pre-determined, fire and depart the scene. Given the Iraqi shortage of rounds for the firing units, it was believed that some of the SSM unit commanders had been given permission to fire and then abandon the launch trucks.

The US Bush Administration on March 30, 2003, attempted to recover some of its deterrent posture against the Iraqi/Syrian deployments. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly stated that military supplies were being smuggled across the border from Syria into Iraq, and that “these deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces”. He did not acknowledge the possibility of an Iraqi launch against Israel, although it was implicit in his statement.

He said that the US would hold Syria accountable for “hostile acts”, and warned Iran against getting involved in the conflict. Syrian Foreign Ministry officials said that Secretary Rumsfeld’s allegations were “unfounded and irresponsible”. Secretary Rumsfeld had refused to say if he believed the trafficking of supplies was state-sponsored but said that the Syrian authorities had control of their borders. He said the shipments included night-vision goggles and that this “vastly complicated” the military operation in Iraq. 

Significantly, the Syrian Foreign Ministry response was totally unflustered, and said that the US was attempting to divert attention from its attacks on Iraqi civilians. Secretary Rumsfeld’s statements did not appear to diminish the cross-border logistical or manpower flow, although the SSM deployment of March 27-28, 2003, had yet to be repeated. The Syrian public posture, and the fact that Syria had not been intimidated by the US, indicated that Washington had not yet convinced neighboring states that they faced a threat from the US as a result of the war. Indeed, it is possible that the explicit US statements that it was solely focused against Iraqi Pres. Saddam had given comfort to Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad, who had earlier attacked Coalition action in Iraq, saying the coalition would be confronted with “popular resistance” which would prevent them from controlling the country. 

It was also possible that the resignation of the Chairman of the influential US Defense Advisory Board, Richard Perle, on March 28, 2003, had given Pres. Bashar some comfort. Mr Perle had said that the Administration viewed the governments of Iran, Syria and Libya as problems to be dealt with after Iraq.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, February 27, 2003: US Bush Administration Looking Beyond Iraq to Promote Change in Iran, Libya and Syria.]

Mr Perle’s resignation was cited by the BBC as having come “amid controversy over his dealings with the bankrupt telecommunications group, Global Crossing”. In reality, his position on Global Crossing had been thoroughly reviewed earlier by US Defense Dept. lawyers who reportedly found no wrongdoing on Mr Perle’s part. However, the earlier involvement with the failed telecommunications company was used by political opponents to force Mr Perle onto the defensive.

US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said that he had accepted Mr Perle’s resignation as chairman from the Board, but had asked him to remain a board member. Mr Perle said in his letter of resignation: “As I cannot quickly or easily quell criticism of me based on errors of fact concerning my activities, the least I can do under these circumstances is to ask you to accept my resignation.” Mr Perle said that he had been advising Global Crossing but would not accept compensation from the pending sale of the company, adding that fees for his past services would be donated to the families of US forces killed or injured in Iraq,

Clearly, Mr Perle’s forced resignation, as well as the apparent impunity with which the transfers and operations from Syria into Iraq had been working, gave the Saddam Administration, as well as the Syrian leadership, encouragement.

It now seemed clear that, in large part because of exceptionally negative reporting on the progress of the Coalition by some mainstream Western media — but particularly the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), both of which, despite the fact that they are State-owned and publicly funded, have acted deliberately to subvert their own governments’ prosecution of the war against Iraq — that much of the Arab world perceived the US and the Coalition to be on the defensive in the war against Pres. Saddam Hussein. However, extensive polling in the UK and Australia showed that public support for their governments’ positions on the war was overwhelmingly favorable, clearly indicating the fact — which is widely known within the journalistic communities of both countries — that the freedom allowed to BBC and ABC journalists had encouraged the recruitment of left-wing journalists who often did not hesitate to shape stories to fit their own prejudices.

This had now resulted in a situation where — because of the impact, for example, of BBC World Service radio and television — the Western media had presented a picture which falsely represented the resolve and capabilities of the Coalition. And it was this false picture which was motivating some policy postures by Arab and other governments. This was fed also by the veiled hostility to the US Bush Administration by The New York Times and The Washington Post, both influential news sources, who, as polls had also shown, did not reflect either US Administration or public attitudes.

Meanwhile, on March 26, 2003, the highest Syrian religious authority — which operates only with the acquiescence of the Bashar al-Asad Administration — called on Muslims to engage in a jihad against foreign troops in Iraq.

Iran, which authorized the use of Shi’a HizbAllah forces inside Iraq, against the Coalition, had also probed the use of its al-Badr forces — a militia run by an Iranian ayatollah — against Coalition forces. Al-Badr troops had fired, apparently without any return fire, against some US forces (who had been warned against retaliatory fire on the Iranians). They then fired across the Iranian border at British Royal Marine Commandos, who were not under the same rules of engagement. The RM Commandos responded aggressively, attacking across the border and wiping out the al-Badr position.

The situation now is that the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian leaderships were clearly preparing for the appropriate opportunity to attempt to widen the war, by introducing additional guerilla forces against the Coalition in Western Iraq, and by launching SSM attacks against Israel. This would almost certainly occur at the time of the big Coalition push against Baghdad. The coordination of events thus far indicates that a sophisticated level of pre-conflict planning remained effective, and that a significant degree of Iraqi command and control remained in place, albeit possibly on a crude level.