One of the most unpredictable elements of a possible US-led war against Iraq is how much resistance the 420,000-strong Iraqi military would mount against a better-trained and better-equipped American and allied force.
Top Pentagon officials, hopeful of swift victory, suggest that the bulk of Iraqi soldiers would be unlikely to defend the government for long - if at all. They cite the example of the 1991 Gulf War, when some 70,000 Iraqi troops laid down their arms during the first three or four days.
Nevertheless, elite Republican Guard units and security forces assigned to defend Baghdad and protect Iraqi President Saddam Hussein may put up greater resistance. While much would depend upon the specific tactics of a military operation, experts say the messages Washington sends to Iraqi forces now about their future - and the future of Iraq - will also play a decisive role in whether the troops fight or surrender.
Today, as US commanders continue to move ships, aircraft, and troops into position for a possible war, the Bush administration is stepping up its encouragement of defections among Iraqi soldiers.
Seeking to drive a wedge between the regime and the military, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has underscored in recent days that Washington's dispute is with Mr. Hussein and his inner circle, not with the broad ranks of Iraqi troops.
"This is not an issue between the United States ... or coalition countries ... and the Iraqi people, or the Iraqi Army. It has to do with a small clique in the Baath Party leadership in Baghdad that Saddam Hussein uses to work his will," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
Iraqi troops who refuse to fight for the regime will not be targeted by the US military, he stressed.
"It is certainly correct that people who stay in their barracks, that people who do not engage in the use of weapons of mass destruction or attack coalition forces will not have problems," he said Sunday en route to a meeting with Latin American defense ministers in Chile.
Rumsfeld described ordinary Iraqis, including soldiers, as "hostages," in contrast to the "very elite elements that are very close to a personal guard for the [Hussein] family ... who are benefiting from the regime and who are enabling Saddam Hussein and his family to rule that country."
The Iraqi military, while still among the most powerful in the region, lost about half its Army and Air Force during the Gulf War. Many of its 2,200 main battle tanks, 3,700 armored vehicles, 300 combat planes, and 2,400 artillery weapons are obsolete, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Shortages of tires and spare parts hamper maintenance.
The regular Iraqi Army, with about 300,000 troops stationed mainly around Iraq's borders, is demoralized, low-paid, and unlikely to fight, experts say.
"The morale is very low," says Brig. Gen. Muhammad Baraa Najib al-Rubaie, who served 30 years in the Iraqi Army. "These troops have no initiative. They only obey orders, and that is all. So I think if there is no communication between the high headquarters and these units, this system will collapse very soon."
Encircling Baghdad to protect the regime and prevent coups d'état is the better-trained Republican Guard, with about 70,000 to 80,000 troops organized in six armored and infantry divisions. Furthermore, inside the city protecting government installations and key leaders are the 15,000 to 25,000 Special Republican Guard troops. These elite units are trained in urban warfare. Along with other security forces, they are heavily drawn from Hussein's native hometown of Tikrit and have better pay and living conditions.
Elements of such elite forces are expected to hold their ground in the cities, at least temporarily, according to US and Iraqi military officials. "I would expect that less than 1,000 of these units would stay to the last minute to defend Saddam Hussein, and that is due to their lives being directly attached to his powers," says former Iraqi Gen. Najeeb al-Salhi, a former Republican Guard commander who defected to the Iraqi opposition in 1995.
Analysts say that articulating a strong vision of Iraq's future is important not only in an effort to win over troops, but also because of the need to reform the military so that it can help provide security in a post-Hussein Iraq.
After a war, Iraq's military should be downsized by up to half, firmly subjected to political leadership, made more representative of ethnic and religious groups, and reoriented from internal security to deal with internal threats, says Michael Eisenstadt, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"You are talking about a massive force," says Anthony Cordesman of CSIS. "The officers will have to be screened, you are going to reconstitute the forces. We can't afford to wait and have power vacuums develop in the country and revenge killings going on."