Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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November 8, 2002

Iraqi War Planning and Strategy Show Detailed Preparations for a Geographically Wide and Multi-Layered Conflict

Saddam Delivers Ultimatum to Gulf Leaders; Hints at “Surprise Weapon”

The following analysis is based on extensive reporting from sensitive regional sources of proven reliability.

Exclusive. Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Senior Editor.1 In early November 2002, it became apparent from sources and actions undertaken in Baghdad that the Iraqi Government of Pres. Saddam Hussein was convinced that the war with the US was both imminent and inevitable. Indeed, Saddam Hussein conducted both secret as well as highly-publicized meetings with the Iraqi High Command and leading intelligence and weapons industry officials. 

Reports received on November 7, 2002, from several highly-sensitive, highly-reliable sources indicated that Saddam Hussein had taken separate steps to ensure that no chances were being taken with the conservative Arab leaders. 

Starting on November 5, 2002, senior Iraqi emissaries quietly delivered ultimatums to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and most possibly other Gulf states. Pres. Saddam’s emissaries told the Arab leaders that Iraq had already resolved to pre-empt any US build-up rather than face a major onslaught. Toward this end, they stressed, Iraq would not hesitate to again invade and occupy Kuwait, invade Saudi Arabia, and decisively strike out at Qatar. 

The Iraqi military in southern Iraq had already deployed accordingly. Moreover, according to the messages delivered to the Gulf leaders, no US installation and no US ally would escape Iraq’s wrath and long arm, alluding to the planned use of Islamist terrorists. As well, the emissaries stressed, Saddam was adamant on striking Israel the first moment hostilities erupted. The required deployment of Iraq’s key military groupings was already completed in western Iraq near the Syrian and Jordanian borders. 

Asked about the threat of Israeli retaliation, the emissaries stated that Iraq would use a “surprise weapon” against Israel, reducing such a threat. Senior Arab officials who dealt with the Iraqi emissaries, as well as Arab leaders, considered these ultimatums to be very credible and serious. The Arab leaders contacted were already seriously studying the Iraqi message, the officials explained, and profound policy changes regarding the US war with Iraq should not be ruled out.

Meanwhile, the earlier, publicized meetings inside Iraq, as covered by Iraqi TV, also reflected Baghdad’s defiant mood and real intent. In a one such session, on November 3, 2002, Gen. Hamid Raja Shilah, the Iraqi Air Force Commander, elucidated the national strategic objectives of Iraq as perceived by ruling élite. The coming war, he assured Pres. Saddam, would be first and foremost for the liberation of Palestine and not merely resisting the US onslaught on Iraq. Gen. Shilah expected Saddam to “fulfill the ambitions and hopes of the Arab masses, and lead them to liberate Palestine and its crown, Holy Jerusalem, from the claws of the Zionists” in the forthcoming war. Gen. Shilah’s statement was not empty rhetoric given that Saddam has been convinced that any regional flare-up involving Israel would significantly reduce the US ability to confront Iraq because of the regional ramifications.

Baghdad’s expectations are neither illogical nor impractical. The Iraqis know there can be no match to the US military might and that once hostilities commenced the Iraqi armed forces would be destroyed. However, irrespective of the extent of the destruction and collapse of Iraq, Baghdad appears convinced, any outcome in which Saddam and his son and heir Qusay Saddam Hussein remain alive and capable of issuing sporadic communiqués is a victory over the US. The key to Saddam’s victory is the perception throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds: not the reality on the ground. In that, Saddam is building on the widespread reaction to, and perception of, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s enduring ability to elude capture by the US while sustaining communications with his followers all over the world. As is the case in Afghanistan, any sustenance of guerilla warfare in Iraq — even if sporadic and largely symbolic — would be a major added gain to Saddam’s cause.

With the confrontation with the US imminent, the Iraqis have developed two master contingency plans: 

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The Ramallah-Baghdad axis between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Iraq has been the cornerstone of strategy of both Saddam and Arafat since the 1980s. The kernel of their joint strategy is to have the Palestinians providing the excuse for the Iraqi launching of a war against Israel. Essentially, a Palestinian mega-terrorist strike would elicit Israeli retaliation and lead to Arafat’s appealing to Saddam to save the Palestinians, a request which Saddam would be only happy to oblige. The current specific agreements on cooperation at times of crisis and war are the culmination of relationship going back to the close cooperation during the first Gulf War of 1990-91. Baghdad appears convinced that once a jihad for the liberation of Palestine is launched, no Arab country would cooperate with the US against Iraq because this would be tantamount to opposing the jihad. The Iraqi-PLO operational coordination is in the hands of Iraqi military intelligence, and senior Arafat confidantes, particularly Abu-al-Abbas in Baghdad and Col. Tawfiq Tirawi at Arafat’s side in Ramallah. Until his early-October 2002 arrest by Israel, Rakad Salim, of the Arab Liberation Front, was Saddam’s political emissary to Arafat. Formally Arafat’s advisor for political affairs since 1997, Salim held weekly meetings with the intifada’s Unified Command, the HAMAS, the Tanzim, the PFLP, the DFLP, and other terrorist leaders, in order to discuss contingency plans and specific terrorist operations.

The Israeli Government in Jerusalem realized just how fast the Palestinians were moving toward instigating a regional war on behalf of Iraq on the night of September 4/5, 2002, with the discovery and neutralization of a huge (600kg charge) car-bomb on its way into central/northern Israel from Samaria. The car had a cell-phone fuse characteristic of Fatah-related non-martyrdom operations run by Tirawi’s General Intelligence organization. The car-bomb aimed to cause extremely heavy casualties among civilians on the eve of the Jewish New Year Holiday, thus provoking a massive retaliation against the PA and the ensuing eruption could have been used by Saddam. Simultaneously, the Israeli reaction would have nipped in the bud the Israeli-Jordanian effort to consolidate alternate, post-Arafat Palestinian leadership with which Israel would be able to reach a deal including the hand-over of the populated centers in the West Bank. Such a development would have been a life-saver for Arafat and his coterie.

Consequently, the active preparations for activating the Iraqi-PLO contingency plans were being stifled in recent weeks by the Israeli siege on Arafat’s compound in Ramallah, until lifted as a result of pressure from the US Bush Administration. Since then, Iraqi and Palestinian emissaries met in Amman to finalize and up-date the joint contingency plans. On October 9, 2002, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz warned that a US-Israeli strategy to be finalized by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and US Pres. George W. Bush aimed to exploit the war with Iraq to devastate the Palestinian cause. “The important thing, particularly for our brothers in Jordan, is the transfer plan [for the Palestinians] ... which is on the table now,” Tariq Aziz explained. “When there is a full-scale attack [on Iraq], Israeli tanks will herd people toward Jordan ... making a Palestinian state in Jordan instead of Palestine.”

By early November 2002, Chairman Arafat completed his own High Command for the forthcoming confrontation comprised of a few key aides known for their pro-Iraqi stand. Most important are Tirawi, who assumed command over the terrorism and security forces, Samir Ghawcha, formally the PA’s Minister for Jerusalem and Saddam’s paymaster, and Azzam Azzam al-Ahmad, formally the PA’s Housing Minister and Arafat’s trusted emissary to Baghdad. Concurrently, Arafat and Tirawi completed the consolidation of the Fatah’s armed components — primarily the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Tanzim militia — along with the remnants of the numerous “security services”, into a single clandestine force. This force is geared for closer cooperation with Iraqi military intelligence, particularly their clandestine base in Amman, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian terrorist groups in Baghdad, against the US and Israel. 

The two mission-rôles of this new Palestinian force are:

The first three units of Arafat’s new force are already operational in  Nablus under the direct command of Mahmud al-Allul, Arafat’s loyalist and formally the Governor of Nablus.

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The contingency plans of the Iraqi Armed Forces are a blend of the offensive and defensive operations. Iraq’s strategic arms — the missile forces and the Air Force (al-Quwwat al Jawwiya al-Iraqiya) — prepare for offensive operations primarily against Israel, but also against the Gulf states which might support the US war effort. According to senior Arab security officials who visited Baghdad in early July 2002, Saddam already “put the final touches to a plan for a counterattack that involves the use of biological and chemical weapons. The plan calls for launching attacks in the whole of the Middle East”. The Iraqi Air Force intensified its training, particularly long-range strikes with aerial refueling hardly attempted for a decade. By mid July, Special Unit 223 — Iraq’s pre-eminent ballistic missile force — was put on high alert with experts conditioning its chemical and biological warheads for imminent use.

Some time before mid-September 2002, an Iraqi brigadier-general at the General Staff warned Arab colleagues about Iraq’s military posture and preparations for the forthcoming war with the US and Israel. He noted “Iraq’s tremendous supply of surface-to-surface missile warheads” filled with weapons of mass destruction. “Inspection teams destroyed only a small number of them,” he gloated. Iraq’s ballistic missiles and warheads “are controlled by the Surface-to-Surface Missile Command based in al-Taji, north of  Baghdad,” the General explained. Since there was no effective Western or Israeli attempt to destroy Special Unit 223 since mid-July 2002, in mid-September 2002 Iraq activated and deployed all four missile units: Special Units 222, 223, 224, and 225. The General stated: “They are deployed in various locations in Iraq, permitting them to hit predetermined targets and carry out direct orders from Saddam himself.” This strategic effort is supervised and coordinated by Abd-al-Tawwab al-Mulla Huwaysh — Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Military Industrialization — who gets his instructions directly from Saddam Hussein in person.

The other key issue raised by the Iraqi brigadier-general was the evolving rôle of the Republican Guard. The last decade, and more so the last couple of years, have seen elaborate preparations and active deployment of Iraq’s al-Quds [Jerusalem] Forces close to the borders of Syria and Jordan. Now under Qusay’s direct command, these forces have conducted offensive exercises in close cooperation with the Syrian Armed Forces in preparation for a future war with Israel. At times, these exercises, which involved forward deployment of ballistic missiles, were so realistic that both US and Israeli forces were on the verge of launching pre-emptive air strikes.

By mid September 2002, the Iraqi brigadier-general stressed the rôle of Iraq’s eight Republican Guard divisions — Baghdad, Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, Allah-hu-Akbar, Adnan, an-Nida, al-Fath al-Mubin, and al-Madina al-Munawwarah — in both offensive and defensive operations. Under Qusay’s personal command, these divisions shift between protecting the Administration in two force-groupings north and south of Baghdad to spearheading the onslaught on Israel via Jordan and Syria as the élite core of Qusay’s al-Quds Forces. Under the latest adaptation of Iraq’s contingency plans, as disclosed by the general, all or most of the eight Republican Guard divisions would join the five to six regular divisions and an assortment of special operations and irregular/terrorist forces already comprising the al-Quds Force to form a formidable assault grouping to take on Israel via Syria and Jordan.

To wage this war, Saddam established a special High Command under the direct command of himself and his son, Qusay. The key members of this High Command are Abd-al-Tawwab al-Mulla Huwaysh; Uday Saddam Hussein, supervisor of Saddam’s Fedayeen; Staff General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, Minister of Defense; Muyassar Raja Shalah, Minister of Industry and Minerals; Dr Fadil Muslim al-Janabi, Head of the Atomic Energy Organization, Staff Lt.-Gen. Muzahim Sab al-Hassan, Commander of the Air Defense; Staff Lt.-Gen. Hamid Raja Shilah, Commander of the Air Force; and Staff Maj.-Gen. Kamil Ismail Mahmud, Dean of the Military Engineering College. According to Iraqi senior officials, Saddam’s High Command also includes several “specialized mujahedin and fighters” with unique skills and responsibilities. Saddam is understood to intend to rely on this High Command for the conduct of offensive operations both in the context of a regional war against Israel and preemptive strikes in the Persian Gulf area in connection with the US preparations for the attack on Iraq.

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In case it would be impossible, or inadvisable, launch a war against Israel, Baghdad devised a comprehensive multiple-layered defense plan with the assistance of US-educated Egyptian senior officers, most of whom were recently retired. It is a pragmatic plan, assuming the gradual capture of most of Iraq’s cities and the destruction of its known military infrastructure.  To reduce the pace of collapse, Iraq mobilized in mid-July 2002 the “Saddam’s Fedayeen” force, a 35,000-strong praetorian guard comprised solely of Saddam’s own Tikrit tribe under the command of Saddam’s other son, Uday. This “martyrs” force serves the Administration’s last resort defenses as well as the primary instrument of purging the ranks of the defense establishment of traitors. The martyrs’ activation signaled Saddam’s resolve to forestall any possible cooperation between elements of the Iraqi Army and the US-sponsored Iraqi opposition.

In early October 2002, senior Arab officials in contact with Baghdad noted that Saddam’s defensive plans “proceeded from the possibility of a quick military defeat for the Iraqi regular forces, the fall of major cities in the north and the south, and even the surrender of scores of military barracks and divisions and the desertion of thousands of soldiers”. They explained that Baghdad’s working assumption is that “the US invasion would take place at any time and would be aimed at Saddam personally, his family, and the narrow ruling circle around him.” Saddam is convinced, they elaborated, that “the sole victory, which he could achieve and defeat Bush with, is staying alive and preventing the US forces or their military and civilian Iraqi collaborators from achieving the aim of arresting or assassinating him, even if they succeeded in occupying Baghdad and appointing a bogus ‘Iraqi Karzai’”. The essence of the Iraqi defensive plans would be to facilitate Saddam’s “victory” irrespective of the price Iraq would have to pay.

The outer layer of the defense plan relies on the Iraqi regular Army and civilians recruited into the al-Quds militias. Baghdad is boasting seven-million volunteers in these militias. The defensive effort is divided into two distinct zones in northern and southern Iraq. In the north, the defense zone is very shallow and covers the area between the Kurdish-controlled areas and the forward positions of the Republican Guard forces. The objective of these defense lines is to buy time for the Republican Guard. In the south, the forward defense zone covers the entire Shi’ite inhabited area from the border with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia all the way to the Republican Guard positions just south of Baghdad.

Indicative of Saddam’s plans for this region is the nomination of Lt.-Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid as the commander of the south with headquarters in al-Nassiriya. Commonly knows as Ali Keemawi — Ali the Chemist — he arrived in southern Iraq “authorized [by Saddam] to use chemical weapons against any popular insurrection there”. In case Baghdad decided to implement the defensive strategy, al-Majid’s instructions called for buying time for the defenders of Baghdad, inflicting at least a thousand US fatalities, and ensure popular resistance to the invading forces in which thousands of Iraqi civilians — mainly members of the al-Quds militias — would be injured in front of Western TV. Saddam was convinced, the senior Arab officials stressed, that the aggregate impact of heavy US casualties and the gore of Iraqi civilian casualties “would lead to international and US pressure for withdrawal from the ‘Iraqi Vietnam’”.

The second layer of the Iraqi defense is comprised of the Republican Guard forces covering an area including Baghdad, Tikrit and Qusay’s forward headquarters at the al-Baghdadi air base. Under Qusay’s command, the Republican Guard’s eight divisions, along with an assortment of artillery, missiles and special forces, are expected to put a protracted and defiant fight against the US forces. These forces are well-equipped, constantly trained, and fiercely loyal to Saddam and Qusay. While these forces are expected to demonstrate long-term endurance against the US as well as inflicting heavy casualties, they are not expected to defeat the US Armed Forces. Ultimately, the Iraqi contingency plans predict that “the Republican Guard would not be able to resist the military and psychological warfare pressure”, and fighting would move into Baghdad. Saddam, the Arab officials noted, is convinced  that “the real battle of [Iraq’s] existence and destiny would be fought in and around Baghdad”. 

For the Battle of Baghdad, Qusay has established a special force of some 40,000, comprised of special units from the Republican Guard whose loyalty is not in doubt, as well as regiments of the Republican Palace’s special defensive companies and protocol and guard forces. They are expected to conduct urban warfare, guerilla warfare and terrorism at all cost to themselves and irrespective of the plight and losses of the civilian population.

Ultimately, Saddam, Qusay, and a host of key officials would move to shelters at the heart of the Iraqi desert in order to conduct the next phase of the war: the guerilla and terrorism phase. Of special significance is the transition period from urban warfare to desert-based guerilla warfare. To oversee this phase, Saddam nominated Abu-Karmi, who, along with Abd-al-Hamid Humud, Saddam’s private secretary, are considered the two non-family members closest to Saddam and Qusay. According to a high Arab official actively involved with the leadership in Baghdad, Abu-Karmi’s mission is “to open the doors of hell on US forces’ positions and bases in the neighboring countries, especially Qatar and Kuwait, and even Jordan, if US operations were launched from there, with all the missiles and biological and chemical weapons Iraq possesses”.

The transfer of Saddam and his coterie to the desert and the activation of the guerilla phase of the war is entrusted to Abd-al-Hamid Humud. Over the past few months, ever since Baghdad was convinced that Pres. Bush was adamant on toppling the Administration, Humud has been working on the “underground resistance” plan. He identified the areas in which the resistance would be active and appointed local Ba’ath party and tribal officials. He also oversaw the construction of long and deep tunnels in safe areas located in the Sunni region and near the Syrian and Jordanian borders. These tunnels were filled with cash, provisions, weapons and explosives in quantities which would sustain a guerilla war for three years.

For the long-term guerilla warfare, Saddam established the jihad leadership comprised of Saddam, his son Qusay, Ali Hassan al-Majid (Saddam’s cousin), Abd-al-Tawwab Mulla Huwaysh, Mustafa Kamil (Saddam’s brother-in-law), Sultan Hashim, Lutayyif Nusayyif Jasim, Tariq Aziz, and Watban al-Tikriti (Saddam’s brother). The guerilla war would be wage by a force of more than 100,000 troops all of whom are from the Tikrit and Al-Bu-Nassir tribes. Most of them are drawn from the tribes’ own defense force, the Republican Guard, the intelligence, and the Ba’ath party militias. About 5,000 of these forces are experienced commandos from the Republican Guard, the special security, and the intelligence, especially Unit 999, Iraq’s primary terrorism training and control force which is now entrusted with setting up martyrdom squads to strike US objectives throughout Iraq. Saddam is convinced that these forces would be able to sustain terrorist campaign throughout Iraq, and a lengthy bloody struggle for Baghdad, thus transforming Iraq into a new Afghanistan/Vietnam.

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Ultimately, of most concern to the US and its coalition partners is Saddam’s apparently genuine conviction that at the end, once hostilities were about to begin, the leaders of the Arab World would realize that the US was their enemy and would rally to join Iraq in the fateful all-Arab confrontation with the US and Israel over the future and glory of Arabism. In early November 2002, Saddam stressed this point in a conversation with Sayyid Nassar, a long-time Egyptian friend and journalist for al-Usbu.

Saddam insisted that Arab leaders now grasped that “Iraq is not the only Arab country facing the plots. The United States wants to impose its hegemony on the region. In trying to achieve that, it is directing its hostility to the Arab states, especially the key ones. This serves the interests of the Israeli entity and World Zionism. ... The United States wants to destroy the centers of power in the entire Arab homeland, whether Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad.” 

Saddam articulated a coherent US-led conspiracy against the entire Muslim world, noting: “The United States wants to impose its hegemony on the Arab homeland and as a prelude it wants to control Baghdad and strike at the rebellious capitals that reject this hegemony. Once Baghdad is placed under military control, it will be Damascus and Tehran’s turn to be struck at and split up.” Saddam warned that the US intended to take on “Saudi Arabia by splitting it up into small entities to be ruled by sentries and guards working for the United States. Thus, there will not be any state bigger than Israel in size and population. Arab oil will be under US control and the region, especially the oil fields will be, after the destruction of Afghanistan, under the full hegemony of the United States.” 

Washington’s ultimate objective, Saddam stressed, was “for Israel, under this strategy, to become a great empire in the region. Iraq’s problem in all of this is that it is confronting all these plans without the others [Arab states and leaders] realizing that it is fighting on their behalf. ... All [Arabs] are the same in the US and Israeli view. What is taking place and planned against us now will also take place and be planned against the others tomorrow.”

At the same time, Saddam demonstrated pragmatism regarding the possibility of a US-led invasion of Iraq, noting to Sayyid Nassar:

“We are getting ready as if war would take place within an hour. We are prepared psychologically for that. The daily US attacks and attempts to exhaust us and kill our civilians daily with the missiles and bombs of its aircraft, which take off from bases in the neighboring countries, have made us feel we are in a continuous war. The attacks have not stopped since 1991. Therefore, we are prepared for war. But, Iraq will never be like Afghanistan. This does not mean that we are stronger than the United States. It has fleets and long-range missiles. But, we have faith in God, the Homeland, the Iraqi people, and more important also faith in the Arab people. We will never make it a picnic for the US and British soldiers. The land always fights with its people.”

The Author:

Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor of GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs publications, is also Director of Research for the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), the parent body of GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs. He is the author of several significant books on terrorism and Middle Eastern affairs, most notably his 2002 book, The High Cost of Peace: How Washington’s Middle East Policy Left America Vulnerable to Terrorism, as well as Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America (1999), and Terror! The Inside Story of the Terrorist Conspiracy in America (Shapolsky Books, 1994: details the development of the jihad against the US), and Target America: Terrorism in the US Today (Shapolsky Books, 1993, which noted: “The explosion which shook the World Trade Center [in 1993], and the rest of America, was only the beginning. The bombing in New York and the few terrorist operations that preceded it [most of which had been interpreted as crimes], are but a prelude to an escalation in Islamist terrorism in the United States and Canada.”)

Mr Bodansky is also Director of the US House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, although his writing for ISSA/GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs is strictly in his private capacity.