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From Iraqi officers, three tales of shock and defeat

In one week, a 4,000-strong unit lost 800 men.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / April 18, 2003



BAGHDAD, IRAQ

As Baghdad still smolders, senior Iraqi officers are beginning to absorb the scale of their defeat - and examine what went wrong.

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The day that Baghdad fell, April 9, is a date that Iraqi Army Maj. Saleh Abdullah Mahdi Al Jaburi remembers with shame. "A military driver took me to my house in Tikrit," Major Al-Jaburi recalls. "As soon as I got home I took my uniform off, went to my bedroom, and stayed there for five days. I was so shocked."

Faced with America's firepower and technological superiority, three Iraqi officers - who fought in different parts of Iraq - say they never expected to win this war. But they voice dismay at the number of Iraqi errors - deployment of militia groups instead of army units, for example - and at the impact of US psychological operations.

Despite their anger, these men could prove to be the voice of a new professional Iraqi army that may emerge - with American assistance - in the aftermath of this conflict.

And they know whom to blame: Saddam Hussein and his sons Qusay and Uday made all key military decisions. "We are already used to his mistakes from the Iran-Iraq war and Kuwait," says Colonel "Asaad," who asked that a pseudonym be used. "Every plan of Saddam was a disaster."

Iraqi armed forces had also never recovered from being pulverized in the 1991 Gulf War. "You can't fight with what was left ... and this war was not just about what you learn at the military academy - it is technological, and we recognized that," says Asaad. "The Army believed that from the first bullet fired by the British in the south, it would lose."

And so it came to pass. Jaburi, a lean and weary battalion commander with the Iraqi Army's 2nd Infantry Division, knew defeat was inevitable.

"But we were expecting that the war would last longer than it did," he says. "We were desperate when Baghdad fell so quickly. If we were not Muslims we would have done like the Japanese and committed suicide [but] ...our religion forbids it."

The war had begun in earnest for Jaburi and his men 16 days before Baghdad fell, when his division received orders to pull out from Kifri, in northern Iraq, to join the defense of Baghdad.

Moving under the cover of a dust storm, Jaburi's unit made it to the northeastern outskirts of the capital with few casualties, despite US airstrikes on the road. But then, dug in, they felt the full force of American air power.

During the first week of April, Jaburi says, his 4,000-strong unit lost 800 men to "massive air attacks." But the survivors stood their ground, and repelled a US Marine assault on the afternoon of Monday April 7th.

"We knew that they were afraid to face us, but the fact that they had close air support encouraged them to engage us," Jaburi says. "If we had had air cover or missiles I don't think the Americans would have dared enter Iraq, let alone Baghdad."

Airstrikes killed 600 more of Jaburi's men on Monday and Tuesday last week. American troops were forced to retreat 12 miles to Salman Pak, he says, but the game was over. Divisional headquarters in Baghdad ordered them back to their base in the north. There was no discussion of using chemical weapons. More than half the remaining men deserted, stripping off their uniforms and heading home to protect their families. Jaburi's own instincts for survival overruled his career officer's sense of discipline.

Fleeing for home

When Baghdad fell so quickly, "we were shocked," he says. "The battle was over. We didn't know what to do and you can't judge whether it was right or wrong." Soon his commander "expressed his deepest sympathy and condolences, and said we could go home."

The thought of going home also came quickly to troops under Colonel "Saad," another Iraqi officer who used a pseudonym. He was based in Al Amarah, in southern Iraq near the Iranian border. On April 3 they heard that American troops had reached Baghdad. The next day, their food supply line was cut.

"Soldiers started asking: 'Why are we using the reserve food?' and on April 4 they began to run away," recalls Saad. While news of Fedayeen Saddam and tribal militia resistance against US and British forces in southern Iraq was heartening, Saad says his commander knew that it couldn't last. The mistake was relying on the Fedayeen, which he termed "mercenaries."

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