The Battle for Baghdad - from the vantage point of the Iraqi regime
March 30, 2003

Tom Cooper

What is left and what can be done? While the mass media in many countries in the West, the Eastern Europe, and the Arab World tends to offer a completely different picture - foremost by not talking about this fact at all - the situation of the Iraqi regime is very bad. The Army acted as was to be expected from it when confronting the US and British: it offered some token resistance, and then fell apart. The only difference to 1991 was that instead of running over the US side, this time the troops were abandoning their equipment and running home.

In detail:

The 51st Mechanized Division (MD), the unit responsible for the defense of the border to Kuwait and Basrah, fell apart within few hours after the start of the invasion. The 41st Armored Brigade (AB) dissolved during the pull back with most of the equipment abandoned where it stood. The 31st Mechanized Brigade (MB) fell completely apart, and only something like 50% of the 32nd MB managed a withdrawal in disorder into Basrah, where only some 1.000 troops and barely 20 tanks of the whole division arrived. Was it not for the fact that the road from al-Qornah remained open long enough for the elements of the 6th Armored Division (AD) to arrive from the north, it is questionable if there would have been anything more on hand to defend the city.

Was this an exception from the rule, and have the US leaders really hoped for too much?

Actually not. The same happened with the 11th ID that defended the area around an-Nassiriyah. The unit fell apart as soon as the leading elements of the 3rd ID (Mech) arrived there. The officers of the Military Security Service and the local Ba'ath Party authorities needed more than 24 hours to re-establish some kind of a control over sad remnants of the division (mainly by terrorizing the local population and defecting troops): out of some 6.000, hardly more than 1.500 troops were left.

The third division of the III Iraqi Army Corps, the mentioned 6th AD, was completely misused upon arrival in Basrah. Instead of entrenching it inside the city, probably on the direct order from Hassan "Chemical Ali" al-Majid, only few days later it was sent into a suicide attack against the British troops on the road to al-Faw, in the south, and near az-Zubayir, in the south west. The results were catastrophic, even if sources differ about the number of Iraqi MBTs and APCs destroyed: both columns were completely annihilated. Not that this helped the cohesion of the 6th AD: in the following days it fell apart as well, and we might never learn how many of its officers and soldiers were shot when the local authorities tried to re-establish the control. Instead of having the whole 6th AD and parts of the 51st MD to defend Basrah, al-Majid now has barely 21 T-55s, and not more than 2.000 troops in the city. The III Iraqi Army Corps is therefore non-existing.

Further to the north, the IV Iraqi Army Corps was defending the area around al-Ammarah and al-Qornah. The situation of this concentration (1 AD, two IDs) remains unknown: it was certainly spared of an early demise by the inability of the British 1st Armored to make a swift advance towards al-Qornah (as it seems, the British pulled back after reaching the outskirts of the city, and returned to besiege Basrah), and must now be expected to be involved in the defense of that area, as well as the area around al-Kut. In total, in the first two days of fighting, the Iraqis have lost a whole corps of their Army without causing more than four or five casualties to the US and British troops. So far, the Iraqi regime was losing the war: it lost the grip over the forward units, could barely hope for the authorities in the field to recover, and its only source of information about what the enemy was doing was CNN.

As we all know, however, the situation changed then, as the US troops sooner or later had to race into the urban as well as more densely populated rural areas in the valley between Euphrates and Tigris rivers. What defenses the Iraqis put up there, and then also inside Basrah, was something the US and British planners knew was possible, but were not expecting: a sort of "people's liberation war", in which the remnants of the regular units were corseted with the commandos drawn from the six commando units of the Iraqi Army and the members of the local Ba'ath Party Militia put under control of Military Security Service (MSS) officers, and "spiced" by sporadic counterattacks of a small number of the "Sadaam Fedayeen" Brigade. This development is something the US and British planners certainly never anticipated: on the contrary, they not only ignored the warnings that this would be possible, but they out rightly refused to hear them, expecting the Iraqis to continue "fighting dumb" - as these did in 1991: i.e. the Iraqi regular forces to clash with the advancing US Army and USMC units in a frontal engagement.. This can be seen also by the decision to ignore the first local Iraqi counterattacks in the an-Nassiriyah and Basrah area, on last Sunday, and instead continue with the advance, already preparing the battlefield for the clash with the southernmost elements of the Republican Guards Forces Command (RGFC) Divisions, such like al-Medinnah AD. How that effort ended is pretty well known meanwhile: the AH-64D Apaches of the 101st Airborne hardly reached the positions of al-Medinnah: while underway there they flew into an area still held by the "irregulars", and got shot up pretty badly, losing one Apache in the process (at lest one more, if not two, had to be written off, even if their crews managed to fly them back behind the US lines).

Of course, we have it easier to look back at these developments, but one can hardly keep himself from concluding that the expectation the Iraqis would fight back only the way they did in Kuwait, in 1991, and do so especially on their own soil and in the face of such a predictable conventional operation as staged by the USA and Great Britain here, looks extremely naive (to see how predictable this plan was, see here: ; note especially the map of the southern Iraq on the end of that article, posted on 28 February 2003). Add to this the fact, that the allied supply system was planned to support a relatively swift advance on Baghdad, but not support a massive battle of attrition, characterized by the days-long fighting in an-Nassiriyah, and a very slow, but gas-guzzling advance towards ad-Diwaniyah and al-Kut, further north, and it should not surprise anybody that the US troops fighting in the area were almost thrown out of balance.

Result? The Allied advance was effectively stopped before the main positions of the three RGFC divisions south of Baghdad were reached, simply because it raced "out of steam" and then the supply system almost collapsed due to permanent pressure from the Iraqi irregulars on choke points. Naturally, one should make no mistake and underestimate the US forces already involved in the fighting or their capabilities: in exchange for only minimal losses, the 3rd ID and the 1st MEF did a valiant job, actually fighting against the odds, and causing tremendous losses to the Iraqis so far. But, these two units alone were simply not enough to cause sufficient damage in the given time, and nobody can expect them to continue the advance while fighting under similar conditions; especially not as both units had to deploy one third of their strength solely in order to secure their supply lines.

Now, let us take a step back and see how the Iraqis have actually prepared to achieve such situation. In the spring 2002, a report arrived from Iraq, that all the units from the level of Brigade within the RGFC and the Army, as well as squadron within the Air Force and the Air Defense Force, have got a kind of a "political commissar": each HQ got an officer of the MSS attached. On the first view, this was understood only as effort of the regime to establish better control over the forces in field, by monitoring behavior of the unit commanders, and ascertain that the men in question would follow the orders from the top to the last letter. After a closer study of the Iraqi operations in urban areas between Euphrates and Tigris River, however, there is definitely a different picture: the MSS officers had obviously another role as well, that of organizing a sort of "people's liberation war".

The background for this idea might be of genuine origin, this author, however, cannot ignore interesting parallels it shows to the doctrine developed in the former Yugoslavia, under the rule of the communist dictator Tito. At the times, Yugoslavia had relatively large regular army, but this was in the case of the war to be supported by the units of the "Territorialna Obrana" (TO) - the "Territorial Defense", a robust structure recruited from local population, trained to organize a guerilla war on the basis of experiences from the WWII. The basic idea behind such system of defense was to make the occupation of any areas unbearable for the enemy, which would be put under pressure by the TO units at each and every opportunity. What the Iraqis are doing at this moment shows all the characteristics of such organization. Obviously, their MSS and the officers of the Ba'ath Party militia were were advised in this kind of warfare, which needs no sophisticated communication systems, nor proper control from above: the local commanders always know what they are to do, and where not, a small number of the Fedayeen is usually enough to remember them about their duties. The only problem for the Iraqis is the constant refusal of the local population and own troops to be drawn into such a war: because of this, and because of the excellent training and motivation of their opponents, their operations so far were not as effective as could actually be expected.

Meanwhile, the four RGFC divisions further rear have got more time to prepare their defense. Of course, they are now put under relentless bombardment, and are likely to lose a considerable percentage of their heavier weapons to air strikes. But, the fight of the irregulars against the advancing US troops in front of them will give them a good clue about where to expect enemy attacks, so this time they should be in a better position to fight back than they were in 1991, when the Coalition offensive took the Tawalkalna alla-Allah RGFC Division completely by surprise, and destroyed it within only few hours. Consequently, the Iraqi regime avoided losing the control of the battlefield, even if being deprived of modern means of communications due to US and British strikes against communication systems in the Baghdad area: The regime will not really have the control over RGFC units in the oncoming battle that is now to develop, but the irregulars will be able to advise the local RGFC commanders about the directions of US attacks, and the regime knows these commanders are going to fight - if for no other reasons, then because of the presence of the MSS officers and the Fedayeens, and because the regime has their families in the hand.

Therefore, even if the condition of the RGFC units deployed south-west, south, and west of Baghdad is already not the best, they must be expected to offer effective resistance: far more effective than even the irregulars managed so far. For the defense of Baghdad, the RGFC structure of two corps - "Northern" and "Southern" - changed. The 2nd al-Medinah al-Munawera AD, for example, originally based at al-Taji, north of Baghdad, is now positioned directly south of Baghdad. This division is now far from their former power: it has only 6.000 troops, only the 10th AB with T-72s (instead of two armored brigades), and the 14th MB, that lacks a good part of its BMP-1s. In addition, this division was already put under constant air attacks, and its strength further depleted. North-West of al-Medinah, the 1st Hammurabi MD is entrenched in a series of defensive positions, reinforced by some elements of the Special Republican Guards Command (SRGC), guarding western approaches to Baghdad, as well as the Baghdad Int. Airfield, and the immense Radwaniyah "Presidential Site". This unit consists of the 8th and 9th MBs, and the 17th and 18th ABs, and is likely to be the most powerful remaining RGFC asset. South-East of Baghdad is the 8th al-Nidaa AD, consisting now only of two ABs (41st and either the 42nd or 43rd), guarding approaches from the direction of al-Kut. The whereabouts of the 6th Nebuchadhnaser MD are unknown: in peace-time, the unit (consisting of the 19th, 22nds, and 23rd MBs) was based at Karbala, but there are no reports indicating it to still be in this area. There are three possible explanations: it was disolved and its elements added to other units, foremost the al-Nidaa AD, or it was already engaged by the 3rd ID (Mech) in an-Najaf and Karbala. Much more likely, however, it is deployed in maneuvering brigades distributed with the V Army Corps, and has got the task to defend the al-Kut and Salman Pak area: these now lay ahead of the 1st MEF, and offer excellent opportunities for defense.

Finally, north of Baghdad is the 7th Adnan AD, and inside the city the Baghdad AD of the SRGC is deployed. The Baghdad SRGC Division is currently the most powerful Iraqi (conventional) formation, consisting of the 2nd and 3rd MBs (largely motorized, not mechanized), and the 4th AB (with two battalions of T-72s).

Given the proximity of these units to the Iraqi regime, and the first positive experiences with their organization of the battlefield, there is little doubt that the 3rd ID And the 1st MEF are about to see fierce fighting. This especially as they are now to advance through an area full of larger and smaller villages, larger and smaller towns, and huge military bases that can be found south of Baghdad. The Iraqis will have it exceptionally easy to set up ambushes, and to continue harassing supply lines behind the front. We should expect the battle of Baghdad to be postponed for quite some time, as the advance on the Iraqi capital is likely to be massively postponed by the need the US units not only to crush the resistance of the defending Iraqi RGFC units, but then also to mop up the areas they conquered, in order to secure their supply lines. Even if nobody should expect the Iraqis in general to do more than they did until now - i.e. first fire in order to be able to say that they resisted, and then give up and surrender - because of the constant presence of the irregulars, this will be a very tedious job.