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The San Francisco Chronicle April 17, 2003

Where have all the soldiers gone?

Thousands of Iraqi troops seem to have melted back into society

By Matthew B. Stannard

As they cope with scattered firefights and turn to pressing humanitarian needs, U.S. and British troops may not have time to ask a key question that has been puzzling analysts since before the fall of Baghdad:

Where did all the Iraqi soldiers go?

By all accounts, Iraq's regular army and Republican Guard have been all but no-shows on the battlefield.

U.S. soldiers and reporters in Iraq have reported finding abandoned weapons -- from AK-47s to heavy artillery and missiles -- and even discarded uniforms by the side of the road.

A few members of the military -- even officers in the elite Republican Guard -- have surfaced in civilian clothes, granting interviews to reporters and strolling past U.S. troops in Baghdad.

Others -- possibly thousands more -- were killed in battle. But the great bulk are simply missing.

Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said earlier this month the military could not account for how many Iraqi troops decided to "just walk off the battlefield and never fight again." But on Wednesday, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, said the question is more or less moot.

"The Republican Guard no longer serves in this country, the Special Republican Guard no longer serves in this country. The regular army in this country no longer functions," Franks said.

Nevertheless, the mystery of where Baghdad's defenders went is still being pursued. On Tuesday, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that a Republican Guard commander in Baghdad, Maher Sufyan, ordered his troops to lay down their weapons and go home in exchange for a ride out of Baghdad on a U.S. helicopter.

Qatar's Al-Jazeera and several other Arab news services carried Le Monde's report, although one outlet, Web magazine "Islam Online," carried a report Wednesday citing unnamed sources suggesting Saddam Hussein himself agreed to give up Baghdad in exchange for a ticket out of town.

The plausibility of such reports is hard to determine, but several U.S. analysts said one part is extremely plausible: that the great bulk of Iraq's troops really did just shed their uniforms and go home.

"As far as the regular army goes, they all just gave up," said Patrick Garrett, an analyst for GlobalSecurity.org.

Of course, many Iraqi soldiers died on the battlefield -- thousands, estimated Garrett and other experts -- although nobody knows exactly how many.

Analysts such as Ivan Oelrich, a research fellow for the Federation of American Scientists, noted that there still is not even a reliable count of casualties from the 1991 Gulf War -- estimates range from 1,500 to 100,000.

In 2002, the Iraqi armed forces comprised 424,000 troops, according to a study by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The U.S. military at the time put the number higher, at around 700,000, including reserves, Cordesman noted. Other studies place the number lower.

In any case, even with thousands of Iraqis killed in air strikes and ground battles since the current war began March 20, and 7,300 Iraqi prisoners of war as of last week, according to U.S. Central Command, that leaves hundreds of thousands of troops unaccounted for.

But in a country of up to 24 million people, those troops are drops in a bucket, analysts said, and will be easily absorbed back into the currently turbulent Iraqi society.

"I would argue most of the rank and file of the military basically are now concerned about their well-being, about putting bread and butter on the table for their family, about regaining their positions, about surviving," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.

Most of Iraq's regular army were conscripts, Gerges and other analysts said, and are probably now back doing whatever they were doing before the war.

And even the Republican Guard troops, who enjoyed special perks under Hussein, probably will be able to get on with life without battling angry neighbors or U.S. troops, they said -- except for some key senior officers.

"People don't tend to look around and blame people for being involved in the regime apparatus, unless they were physically involved in torture," Cordesman said. "Most of the Republican Guard were just regular soldiers, fighting."

The real question now, analysts said, is how to prevent Iraq's evaporated army from consolidating again into a force opposing U.S. troops, taking weapons from the country's almost unlimited supply of small arms and artillery.

The answer proposed by several analysts: prevent having a renegade Iraqi army by helping a new, democratic Iraqi government create a new army of its own -- and, with some screening, hire many of the soldiers from Hussein's old army.

"After all, Iraq needs an army, Iraq needs a police force," Gerges said. "Most of these soldiers will be needed to protect the state, and a large police force will be needed to protect law and order."E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at mstannard@sfchronicle.com.


Copyright 2003, The Chronicle Publishing Co.