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Chicago Tribune March 29, 2003

Crucial test ahead for elite Iraqi troops

By E.A. Torriero, Tribune staff reporter.
Tribune news services contributed to this report.

They are the best-trained, highest-paid and most devoted forces of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Now, as they dig in to face the crucial battle for Baghdad, the Republican Guard will have its mettle tested as never before.

"We will see in the next days how the Republican Guard performs as a fighting force," said John Reppert, executive director of the research center on international security at Harvard University and a retired Army brigadier general.

U.S. military commanders hope coalition firepower and two huge columns of soldiers and Marines can defeat thousands of Republican Guard troops in the next few days. The fall of the Republican Guard could be deeply demoralizing for the Iraqi leadership.

"As goes the Guard, so goes Saddam and Baghdad," said Phillip Mitchell, a ground forces expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

The Republican Guard stands a chance of inflicting significant casualties on U.S.-led troops but probably has little staying power, Western analysts said.

In recent days, hundreds of Republican Guard soldiers have died in the U.S.-led advance toward Baghdad. Still, they showed fierce resistance by capturing a two-man crew after shooting down a U.S. Apache helicopter and damaging several others with small-arms fire.

"Every Apache helicopter crew that went up against them this week will tell you that they will fight," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank.

Even before they vacated Baghdad, Western diplomats were speculating as to the strength and prowess of the Republican Guard. Rarely seen in convoys in the streets--though soldiers were sometimes spotted in public--the Republican Guard trained in secret.

Billed by Iraqi leaders as their shock troops, the men in the Republican Guard are mostly Sunni Muslims initially recruited from Hussein's home region of Tikrit. Their zeal is not only a product of patriotism; they are paid $40 a month, far more than the few dollars paid to college-educated professionals in civilian fields. They also are often given plots of land, additional food rations and social services for their families.

Commanded by Hussein's youngest son, Qusai, the Guards are comprised of roughly 60,000 men in five divisions. Parts of two or three divisions are dispersing around Baghdad's borders while others are joining regular military units elsewhere in Iraq to command and urge soldiers to fight as well as to discourage desertions and mass surrenders.

A sixth unit, known as the Special Republican Guard, has about 15,000 soldiers charged with protecting Hussein, his palaces, his family and the Iraqi hierarchy. They are reportedly not involved in the defense of the capital's perimeter but are thought by U.S. intelligence to be hiding in Baghdad in schools, mosques and private houses.

Like most of the Iraqi forces, their strength has been depleted since the 1991 gulf war. Their equipment consists mostly of 600-plus Soviet-era T-72 tanks and hundreds of howitzers they sometimes fire from the back of pickup trucks, little match for American weaponry.

Still, in recent days Iraq has been warning U.S.-led troops that the Republican Guard is ready and able to fight. One by one, Guardsmen took an oath to Hussein.

"They pledged to the president that they will be the swords that will fight the aggressors and that they are ready to sacrifice to the level of martyrdom to defend their leader, their country and their sanctities," the official Iraqi news agency reported.

It is likely, though, that the Republican Guard's strategy is to take heavy losses, embarrass coalition troops with bloody battles and casualties, and slow the momentum of the U.S.-led advance, Western analysts said.


Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune Company