The Associated Press March 26, 2003
Saddam counts on Republican Guard as last chance for defending Baghdad
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has counted on Iraq's elite Republican Guard to ensure his survival. Members of the corps founded in 1980 get the best equipment, the best training, the best pay, the best housing - all meant to ensure they'll respond when it's time to defend Saddam.
A week into the war, the U.S. "shock and awe" air campaign against the Republican Guard and the other pillars of Saddam's power has yet to achieve its broader aim: an early capitulation by the Iraqi regime that would avert all-out war for control of Baghdad. Now the trusted force led by his son Qusai faces U.S.-led troops closing in on the capital.
On Wednesday, American forces were massing near the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, readying for an attack on Baghdad some 80 kilometer (50 miles) to the north. Thousands of troops from the Guard's Baghdad Division were reported heading south, possibly to attack U.S. Marines along the Euphrates River or to set up defenses to block the Americans' progress.
While on the move south of Baghdad this week, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division engaged in a battle described by U.S. officials as the biggest so far in the war against the Guard's Medina al-Munawara Division. "Medina the Luminous," named for the Saudi city holy to Muslims, is an armored division that is one of Iraq's most battle-hardened units.
U.S. military officials said hundreds of Guard forces died in the attack near Karbala in central Iraq. The Iraqi troops armed with decaying T-72 and T-62 Russian tanks were overpowered by far more modern American armor. No American casualties were reported, but two tanks were lost.
U.S. Thunderbolt Jets and British Royal Air Force Harriers have been bombing Guard forces south of Baghdad to soften them up. U.S. Apache attack helicopters also struck the Guard, but wound up facing the fiercest anti-aircraft fire so far in the war.
It's uncertain how strong a defense the Republican Guard will put up - it gets the best Iraq has, but it's believed to be the best of very little.
Overall, Iraq's army is seen as poorly equipped after the battering it took in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the 1991 Gulf War - and after the country was subjected to more than a decade of trade sanctions imposed because of its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
GlobalSecurity.org, a U.S.-based think-tank that compiles data on military forces, estimates the strength of the Republican Guard at about 50,000. Anthony Cordesman, an American expert on Iraq's military, has estimated the Guard is at 65-75 percent of full strength.
Experts say new Guard recruits receive a monthly salary of about 80,000 Iraqi dinars (US$40), compared to 10,000 dinars (US$5) for a newly appointed Iraqi civil servant with a college degree. They also get bonuses such as plots of land, extra food, and free health care and education for their children.
Republican Guard divisions led the invasion of Kuwait, but were replaced by regular army units in the neighboring country before the U.S.-led war to oust the invaders. In 1991, Medina troops fought the American 1st Armored Division near Basra. The Americans destroyed 61 of Medina's tanks and 34 of its armored personnel carriers in less than an hour.
Medina was quickly reorganized after the Gulf War debacle and in 1997 assigned to protect Baghdad. Its brigades took positions in Al-Taji and Al-Rashdiya, north of the capital, but in mid-September, U.S. satellites detected two Medina brigades leaving for new locations less vulnerable to U.S. attack.
Ahmed Radhi, a former Iraqi army officer now in exile, said in preparing for war, Saddam ordered Guard troops to be deployed in areas where they can use orchards and farms as cover. He said the tactics were crafted to avoid engaging American troops in the open and force them to fight in or near residential areas.
The Guard is believed to be among Saddam's most loyal forcers, but Radhi noted that Guard commanders are closely watched by intelligence agents who report to Qusai Hussein.
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press