Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Saddam Doomed The Defense of Iraq In 2003

There was never any question that Iraq was going to be defeated by the U.S.-led Coalition in 2003. Saddam Hussein’s meddling in military planning before the war however, helped account for why the Iraqi armed forces fared so poorly. The United States was expecting a real fight with the Republican Guard, and to take the capital, but that never materialized. That was partly because three months before the invasion the Iraqi dictator completely changed his country’s defense plans with no provisions for how it was to be implemented.

In December 2002, Saddam called for a meeting of his military commanders to announce his plans for the defense of Iraq. On December 18, he unveiled a series of concentric circles of defense, anchored by the cities with Baghdad at the center. Each line of forces was to fight from the urban areas, and then withdraw to the next circle when commanded. If they were pushed all the way back to Baghdad, they would then fight to the death to preserve the regime. Saddam’s son, Qusay Hussein, said that no one could protest or make suggestions to the plan, because Saddam had already decided upon it. The attending officers could not even get copies of the strategy only take notes on it. The plan did not pay attention to tactics, terrain or how the military was to conduct a fighting retreat, especially given the fact that no unit could coordinate with others or move without permission from the leadership. To top it all off, the commanders were not told how to implement it. Saddam’s strategy was not completely new. The concept of an urban centered defense had been talked about as far back as 1995. However, this was a complete change from the previous plans, which was what flustered the armed forces so much. The Iraqi leader liked to rely upon his intuition, and this was another example of that.
The lack of orders from the top on how to construct this defense led to mass confusion amongst the ranks. The commander of the Republican Guard’s II Corps for example, said that right up to March 2003 Baghdad never gave him any instructions on how to set up his units to comply with Saddam’s plan. That left the general to act on his own, which was expressly forbidden by the regime out of fear of a coup. Twice Qusay and the Republican Guard Chief of Staff told him that he did not have the authority to move his units around. Not only that, but the divisions around him were being redeployed without his knowledge, which could have undermined his preparations. This was standard operating procedure in Iraq. Again, because Saddam thought a military take over was the greatest threat to his rule, he allowed no cooperation between his officers. They could not communicate or meet with each other without supervision by higher ups, because that might lead to plotting. The corps commander was an exception, because most officers decided to do nothing before the invasion since they never received any orders, and were afraid of the consequences if they acted without them. Just months before the U.S. invasion the Iraqi military was thrown into a state of disarray or inaction as it struggled to come to terms with Saddam’s new strategy.

The idea of concentric circles also conflicted with the division of the country into regional commands. Saddam broke Iraq up into four regional commands. Each was under control of a political, rather than a military figure even though they were supposed to be in charge of defense of the country. The southern region was under Saddam’s cousin, “Chemical Ali” Ali Hassan al-Majid. The northern region was commanded by Saddam’s number two Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the deputy premier. The middle Euphrates was under Mizban Khatar Hadi of the Revolutionary Command Council, while Qusay Hussein had Baghdad. Only four days before the invasion in March 2003, was this system finalized. How these commands were to coordinate the defense plan was never explained. Again, that left the preparation to the individual politicians and officers on the ground. In the Euphrates command for example, the former head of the Iraqi navy was named military adviser. He felt this was a complete mistake since he was not an army man used to land warfare. He didn’t arrive in the area until March, and found that nothing had been done to implement Saddam’s plan. Like the regional commands, Baath Party officials were in charge of the military, police, and some of the militias in their areas. Governors for example had control of the army units in their provinces as well as the al-Quds militia, but not the Saddam Fedayeen who took orders from Uday Hussein or the Republican Guard who were under Qusay. They could not make contact with those forces either. When the former navy head went to Muthanna province he was even more exacerbated. Local Baath officials told him that there were 30,000 soldiers and militiamen in and around the city of Samawa. When he went on a tour he found less than 10% of that actually on duty. He was told that this situation would be remedied, but nothing happened. He felt that the city would fall to the U.S. without a fight as a result, which was what basically happened. The lack of coordination amongst the various units and command was a characteristic of Saddam’s Iraq. He felt that if they worked together it might pose a threat to his power. Creating overlapping and contradictory chains of command was then done on purpose. Iraq was to suffer the consequences when it proved incapable of putting up a fight to the invading forces in 2003.

By 2003, Saddam was an isolated autocrat. Sycophants who dared not tell him that he was ever wrong or that things were going badly in the country surrounded him. When three months before the U.S. invasion he decided to completely change the defense of the country there were hardly any complaints, because that was not only unacceptable, but could lead to being executed. Each individual officer and Baath Party official was left to prepare for the U.S. led Coalition on their own, because there was never any instructions from the top on how Saddam’s plan, which was nothing more than a loosely conceived concept to begin with, was to be implemented. Many did nothing as a result. The Iraqi military was already in a bad state after years of sanctions, which denied them new equipment and spare parts. Saddam’s fear of coups also completely debilitated the armed forces ability to fight. That meant Iraq was going to lose in any confrontation with the Americans, but that outcome was also greatly exacerbated by Saddam’s decisions.


Woods, Kevin with Pease, Michael, Stout, Mark, Murray, Williamson, and Lacey, James, “A View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership,” Iraqi Perspectives Project, 3/24/06


Alex said...

Was he perhaps following the Rumsfeld "Afghan model" talk, and thinking of hunkering in the cities and letting an unrepresentative and shorthanded rebellion sit in the desert?

Joel Wing said...


I think it was more a reflection of his dictatorial rule. Saddam thought he knew war and politics better than anyone and liked to use his intuition rather than listen to others, who were afraid to criticize him anyway. Defending the cities had been talked about before for several years, so he just decided to change everything up on his own initiative.

In terms of a rebellion, he was definitely afraid of one happening after any war as occurred after the Gulf War. However those happened in the mountains of Kurdistan and the cities of the south, not the desert.

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