- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

LONDON, March 21 (UPI) — The nagging question overshadowing all others as the United States and its allies launch their early probing attacks is: What will the Iraqi army do under the mounting pressure?

One widespread conviction — with many adherents in the Bush administration — is that all the United States has to do is kick the door down, and Saddam Hussein's regime will collapse. But some seasoned military experts in Washington and elsewhere believe the going will be tougher than that.

Some units of the regular army will fold quickly, these experts say. There are early reports that Iraqi soldiers are defecting in large numbers. But based on their performance in the 1991 Gulf War other military units will give a good account of themselves.

Iraq's army has gone through several phases, starting as a national institution charged with defending the country and its sovereignty from foreign aggression, and from 1968 changing by degrees into the military arm of the ruling Ba'ath party entrusted with ensuring the party's control of the country.

Today, the army is a huge militia loyal to the dictator, Saddam, led by his family and mainly occupied with internal repression and external attacks.

Founded in 1921, it has the historic distinction of having staged the first military coup d'etat in the Arab world. That was against British rule.

The Iraqi army witnessed huge growth in terms of numbers, armament and classical fighting experience during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Iraqi army was the fourth largest in the world.

But the Gulf War reduced its effective strength, and it now numbers slightly under 400,000.

One military expert in Washington says the elite Republican Guard heavy units "get the best officers and the best soldiers." The same is true of the regular army heavy units, which proved a tough nut to crack in the Gulf War.

In the Gulf War the heavy units' "quality of resistance in Iraq was higher than in Kuwait," one expert said.

On the other end of the quality scale are the motorized divisions that are likely to crumble at first hit. And the expert said the 38th infantry division is considered the worst in the Iraqi army.

In addition to the regular army, in 1994 Saddam set up the Forces of Saddam Guerrillas under the command of his eldest son, Uday. The 15,000-strong force stationed in Baghdad consisted of organized militias equipped with tanks, armored vehicles and heavy guns poised to crush any internal rebellion against the regime.

Then two years ago, Saddam ordered the creation of the Quds (Jerusalem), Army which numbering millions of voluntary fighters dedicated to liberating Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. But the real aim of the new army was to replace the old Popular Army, which disintegrated when many of its members took part in the popular rebellion against the regime in 1991.

The Popular Army was little more than a military structure for containing the Iraqi youth in order to control them. It was also a place to absorb "unreliable" senior officers who had been sidelined from sensitive army positions because their loyalty was uncertain.

Once a major client of the Soviet Union, the Iraqi army is well equipped, even if their hardware is antiquated. Armored units have 2,600 battle-worthy T-72 tanks. While most of them are obsolete, they still have to be dealt with.

True to their Soviet training, the Iraqis depend on heavy artillery and have lots of it — 2,800 long-range guns.

The same is true of the Iraqi Air Force's planes.

Most of the senior officers are members of Saddam's tribe. The officers and soldiers have suffered from a sharp decline in their livelihoods. So the army — always an elite group — is even more so in Iraq.

Its mystique is enhanced by the fact that it is a taboo subject, which cannot be discussed or even mentioned by political parties, the media or citizens under the threat of being accused of treason, punishable by death.

In a way, the Iraqi provides a perfect example of Saddam's paranoia. He has created several intelligence units within the armed forces to spy on each other. Any direct coordination or communication between the commanders of units and brigades to prevent plotting against the regime.

In the meantime, former Iraqi officers who broke away from Saddam praise the courage and nationalism of the regular army and revolutionary guards who might play a decisive role in changing the regime in Baghdad if a group of officers were to decide to turn against Saddam.

But Iraqi opposition leaders believe that such a possibility is very remote since Saddam's tribesmen control all key positions in the armed forces and would block any attempted coup.

The reality is that the Iraqi army currently lacks any leaders who could win the respect of the people: it has merely become a tool in Saddam's hands. Iraqis believe that charismatic army commanders are a thing of the past.

The last one was Abdul Karim Qassim, who led the July 1958 revolution that ended British rule in Iraq. Qassim was prime minister in 1959, until his execution by the Ba'ath regime in February 1963. Now Saddam will find out if he can do better.

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