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

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

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.

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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."

"The Fedayeen hit, but would then go back and collect their 10 million Iraqi dinar reward," Saad says. "Only soldiers can hit American troops and progressively move forward."

Besides their inability to press home an attack, the Fedayeen also deployed en masse to the south, and couldn't redeploy before American forces were at the gates of the capital. Officers say that Mr. Hussein's several television appearances were also a source of anger.

"He only praised the divisions in the south one time, and after that praised the Fedayeen, Baath Party, and militia, and forgot to praise the Army," says Saad. "That frustrated leading commanders in the war. We needed more reassurance and motivation, and he gave it only to certain groups."

Another mistake was the decision to move Republican Guard units south of Baghdad - where they could be easily targeted by American jets at Karbala, Hillah, and Al Kut. "While they were moving, the Republican Guard were a target for American fighter planes and they lost a lot of men," says Jaburi. "It was very easy for the Americans to enter Baghdad."

"The way we fought the war was to try to damage American troops as much as possible so that the US and British people would put pressure on their leaders to stop the war," Jaburi adds.

Pressure instead was mounting on Iraqi forces, which were the subject of a building psy-ops campaign since last fall. Saad says his units had little exposure to the messages on tens of millions of leaflets dropped on Iraqi units from the air, because Mukhabarat internal security and military intelligence agents scooped them up first.

"The soldiers would see them fall, but were not allowed to read them," says Saad. "The Army has lots of Baath infiltrators, which kept a tight grip and collected those very fast."

Faxes to officers

Radio broadcasts warning troops not to fight and telling them how to surrender were not often heard, since few soldiers had radios, Saad says. But faxes and e-mails to commanders had a "big impact" - even though those lines of communication were cut some 10 days before the war began.

"Of course it has an impact - if one commander receives a fax and gives it to his senior, in this simple way the officer knows of the US technical superiority," Saad says. "Imagine him thinking: 'If the Americans are able to get into the mind of a senior commander this way, how can I protect a whole division?'"

In the south, the picture was complicated by the crossing over from Iran of thousands of Iraqi exile forces loyal to the Shiite Muslim cleric Mohamed Bakr al-Hakkim. It was this militia that forced Saad's units in Al Amarah to retreat, he says, not the Americans.

"The hit from behind is stronger," says Saad. The militia, known as the Badr Brigade confronted the Iraqis at several rear positions from Baghdad down to Basra, targeting Baath Party and regime command centers, while avoiding contact with US forces.

Along with two other officers, Saad fled the Badr advance late on April 4, and hid with a local sheikh. They changed out of their uniforms and, despite suspicions from the Iran-based militia, the sheikh swore that the officers were his relatives from Baghdad.

On April 6, every Iraqi still in uniform in Amarah was killed by Badr soldiers. Then at 5 a.m. on April 8, American troops nearby ordered that all weapons be given up within 48 hours. The Badr units disappeared, and in that gap, Saad and his two fellow officers made their way home to a capital without a defense ministry anymore.

Losses were great. Of the 700 men under Jaburi's direct command, 200 died. That hurt, he said. "But to lose our country was worse."

For Saad and Asaad, officers of lower rank but 22-year veterans in the Iraqi military, the possibility of a position in a US-organized national force appeals.

"The Army we fought was the most advanced in the world ... and they told us to surrender, and to not lead the country to destruction," says Asaad.

"If the Americans provide protection and sovereignty, and if they lead Iraq in a new direction, then our ideas [about the US] will change."

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