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Sydney Morning Herald March 29, 2003

Fanatics And Innocent There At The Kill

By Christopher Kremmer

Saddam will mix unwilling civilians with his hardcore defenders, writes Christopher Kremmer.

Exploding some of Baghdad's best architecture provided spectacular television footage this week, but in terms of undermining Saddam Hussein's regime the multi-billion-dollar fireworks display may have been a complete waste of money.

"The regime must have expected this," says the Canberra-based Middle East expert Amin Saikal. "Those buildings were obvious targets and would have been evacuated well before the start of hostilities."

The purpose of Shock and Awe is to convince Iraq's armed forces that resistance was futile. So far, it has failed.

In the vanguard of the resistance are a group of well-trained, highly motivated elite divisions, supplemented by fanatical militias, who experts believe will fight to the death. They include the Republican Guard, Iraq's most professional, most battle-hardened troops.

During the Iran-Iraq War and in Kuwait they showed themselves to be brave, capable and absolutely committed. Members receive equipment and better pay and conditions than other soldiers, the neglect of whom had long made the Iraqi Army a breeding ground for coups.

In a country where cronyism rules, the 70,000 members of the elite guard are a rare example of meritocracy, with one important difference. Since its inception in 1963, the guard's primary purpose has been to defend the rulers, not the Iraqi people.

Under Saddam's regime, the 350,000-strong army is deployed in the countryside, with units of the Republican Guard ringing Baghdad. In a coup attempt, the guard is trained and equipped to attack the army units responsible.

Yet because of its ability and professionalism, Saddam has never trusted the guard, and ensures its divisions never enter the capital. The garrison there is controlled by his Special Republican Guard, a force of some 20,000 troops raised in the 1980s and chosen more for loyalty than professionalism. They have been entrusted with the operational control and concealment of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

In 1991, with 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces in open revolt against Saddam, the two elite forces saved the regime, gassing and razing villages and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis. This time, the public response to the US-led action has been very different.

"The invasion appears to have invoked a sense of nationalism in Iraqis, even those who want to see Saddam go," said Professor Saikal, who heads the Arab and Middle East Studies Centre at the Australian National University. "We have not seen the scenes of jubilation among the Iraqi public that our leaders predicted."

Whether due to nationalism, self-interest or self-preservation, the elite forces, Fedayeen guerillas and armed Ba'ath party loyalists are implementing Saddam's plan, melting into urban areas and emerging to ambush coalition forces.

By the end of the first week of the war, the Pentagon was re-assessing a military strategy based on the assumption that Iraq's armed forces would quickly surrender.

Thousands of regular army soldiers have surrendered, thousands more have probably deserted. But despite an overwhelmingly superior enemy, the core of the forces devoted to defending the regime have remained loyal. In recent years Saddam has buttressed that loyalty by stacking the ranks of the elite forces with recruits from his own al-Bu Nasir tribes, and associated Sunni Muslim tribes of central Iraq, particularly those living around his home town of Tikrit.

The top brass of both elite forces report to Saddam's younger son, the dependable technocrat of terror, Qusay.

Since 1994, after the shock discovery of coup plots within both the elite guard forces, it was decided to raise a new militia comprised of tens of thousands of Saddam's most fanatical supporters. They are the Fedayeen, or "Sacrificers", also known as Saddam's Martyrs. Under the command of the president's psychotic elder son Uday, they are a cross between suicide militants, trained urban guerilla fighters and mafia goons.

Not surprisingly, with the regime facing its greatest crisis, the guard has again shown it will do whatever it takes to defend the status quo. While the coalition forces tie themselves in knots over civilian casualties, the guard has dispersed into Iraq's cities. Saddam's strategy is vicious and ingenious. If the coalition forces want to destroy Iraq's toughest troops, they must also destroy innocent civilians, a dilemma that is bound to slow coalition operations.

The more civilians that are killed, the more Iraqi sentiment will turn against the invasion force. Saddam also hopes civilian casualties will ignite violent opposition to the war across the Muslim world.

In The Threatening Storm, last year's American bestseller arguing the case for war, the former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack predicted the extent of this week's resistance.

"A portion of the Iraqi armed forces the Special Republican Guard, most if not all of the Republican Guard, and a small part of the regular army will probably fight very hard. In the end, we might have to fight through Baghdad to get to Saddam."

If they do, waiting for them to make a suicidal last stand will be the Special Republican Guard, armed with chemical and possibly biological weapons, and remnants of the Republican Guard who have fallen back into the capital.

George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard have known all along about Saddam's special forces and iconoclastic survival strategy. They decided to invade despite it.

They believe Iraqi resistance can be subdued.

Iraq's elite forces, like the rest of the country, have been seriously degraded by sanctions. They are outnumbered and outgunned by coalition forces, and will, in the opinion of most observers, be defeated.

But the behaviour of Saddam's loyalists will in part determine how long it takes, what it costs, and in the minds of Western voters whether it was worth it.

IRAQ'S FORCE FIELD

- ARMY, AIR FORCE: 280,000-350,000 troops, 900 tanks, 300 fighter jets, 1000 APCs, 1000 artillery guns. Commander-in-chief: Saddam Hussein.

-REPUBLICAN GUARD: 50,000-80,000 elite troops, 400 tanks, 500 APCs, 200 artillery guns, 1500 shoulder-fired SAMs, and possibly Russian-made Cornet anti-tank missiles. Commander: Saddam's youngest son, Qusay.

-SPECIAL REPUBLICAN GUARD: 15,000-20,000 Saddam loyalists, 100 tanks plus artillery, air defence and possibly chemical/biological weapons. Commander: Saddam's youngest son, Qusay.

-SADDAM'S MARTYRS (FEDAYEEN): 25,000-60,000 fanatical troops, anti-aircraft guns, trained in urban and guerilla warfare. Commander-in-chief: Saddam's eldest son Uday. (Source: Jane's Intelligence Review, GlobalSecurity.org and the Federation of American Scientists, Pentagon):


Copyright 2003, John Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd