Losing on his own terms:
Saddam’s battle plan – and why it didn’t work 
April 2003

Commentary by Rick Francona

Saddam Hussein

Once it became apparent that the United States was going to attack, Saddam Hussein knew he would lose the war, but hoped that he could survive.  To him, as he has learned from past experience, mere survival is victory.

To survive, however, required that his battle plan work.  As was made clear to him in Desert Storm in 1991, his forces were no match for those of the U.S.-led coalition.  In every category of military power, he was hopelessly outgunned and outmatched.  While his forces had at best stagnated since 1991, American forces had gone through at least one generation of modernization.  A crushing military defeat was a virtual certainty.

How then could he hope to survive the coming military onslaught?  He may have planned to continue his time-tested tactic of delaying as long as possible, hoping that in the end there would be a diplomatic solution, a last-minute rabbit-out-of-the-hat deal brokered by what he perceived to be his supporters in the United Nations: France, Russia and China.  Saddam had on occasion referred to these nations as “Iraq’s friends” in that body.

Delaying the advance of American forces while withstanding expected – and promised – “shock and awe” air attacks required Iraqi military forces to engage coalition units as soon as they crossed into Iraqi territory from Kuwait.  Iraqi troops would have to continue to engage the coalition all the way to Baghdad – slowing them down, bleeding them with heavy casualties, taking American prisoners and hitting rear areas with Al-Samoud and Ababil missiles. 

The name of the game: delay, delay, delay, all the while seeking a back-channel diplomatic injunction to the fighting via the Arab League and the United Nations. 

Saddam hoped that by the time American forces reached the outskirts of Baghdad after many weeks of slow-moving, costly combat operations, the world would demand a cessation to the bloodshed.  Further, he believed that the world, as well as the American public, would want to spare of the loss of life an attack on the large urban area of Baghdad would entail.

The employment of Iraqi forces is illustrative of the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein.  To slow the advance of the coalition, Iraqi regular army forces were to be arrayed as the initial barrier between the Kuwait border and Basra, as well as defending An Nasiriyah, An Najaf and Amarah.  Given the capabilities of these forces compared to the state-of-the-art American and British units facing the, the Iraqi troops were sacrificial lambs, the proverbial “speed bumps” for the coalition advance. 

While regular units were being engaged (and destroyed) by coalition forces, Saddam Fedayeen elements were to further slow down the advance by attacking supply lines and attempting to kill as many Americans as possible.  This tactic appeared to the only successful portion of the plan as coalition forces were forced to pause briefly to shore up the beleaguered long supply line stretching from Kuwait to the forward line of American troops.

Realizing that these regular army forces had no chance of halting the coalition move north, Saddam arrayed his better forces, the six divisions of the Republican Guard, mostly in and around Baghdad. The Republican Guard represented the bulk of the Iraqi armed forces’ combat power.  Interestingly, these units were prohibited from entering Baghdad.  The defense of Baghdad was left to the Special Republican Guard, five brigades of what were believed to be fiercely loyal troops.

A key component of this plan revolved around Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Actually, the key was not using the weapons.  If the oft-stated reason for military action against Iraq was its development and possession of chemical and biological agents, use of such weapons would preclude any last-minute diplomatic solution, and hence Saddam’s chance to survive the operation and remain in power.  French President Jacques Chirac, a staunch opponent to military action against Iraq, stated that Iraqi use of chemical of biological weapons might result in France joining the coalition.

According to recent reports in the New York Times, Saddam Hussein ordered the destruction of much of his chemical and biological weapons arsenal when it became apparent that military action was imminent.  Other materials that would be required to restart a future chemical and biological weapons program were buried.  This action would be in keeping with Saddam’s plan to present himself as unjustly attacked.  Further, when faced with no discovery of banned weapons, the coalition would be under enormous pressure to agree to a cease-fire to prevent unnecessary urban fighting in Baghdad.

Why didn’t it work?

Saddam’s plan to survive the battle failed; in fact it failed on all counts.  As coalition forces swept out of Kuwait and American airpower began the systematic destruction of key regime targets in Baghdad, there seemed to be almost no coherent resistance on the ground.  There were small pockets of resistance, Ba’th Party militias and Saddam Fedayeen did put up a fight, but in the end they were overwhelmed by fast moving U.S. and British mechanized and armored units supported by devastating airpower.

As American forces moved north to west of the Euphrates River, there was almost no challenge to their movement by elements of the Iraqi regular army.  The Iraqi III Corps, operating as part of the newly formed southern regional command under General Ali Hasan Al-Majid, or “Chemical Ali,” put up only token resistance, seeming to “melt away.”  Herein lies a key component of the coalition plan – the pre-arrangement of many Iraqi units to not fight.   The lead combat elements of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division moved so quickly north along the west side of the Euphrates that the Iraqis were not able to react in time to shift their defenses.  Defense officials estimate that they were moving 12 to 24 hours faster than Iraqi units could receive updated orders from command centers in Baghdad.

What of the vaunted Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard? 

By the time the bulk of the 3rd Division arrived at the southern approaches to Baghdad – the area to be defended by the Republican Guard – as much as 80 percent of the combat power of the Iraqi units had been eliminated – in other words, the units were effectively destroyed.  American forces were able to push on to seize Baghdad’s international airport. 

Once the airport had been taken, army units conducted raids into the city, the so-called “thunder runs”, which met with some stiff but uncoordinated resistance.  The Special Republican Guard was not to be found.  More importantly, the fact that the city had not been fortified for defense indicates that Saddam planned that the war would not get to that point.  With the exception of the ineffective oil pit fires and a few fighting positions, the city was not readied for the fight-to-the finish promised by Saddam Hussein.

In the end, Saddam was not rescued by his “friends.”  They never had the chance.  As Saddam knew he would from the beginning, he lost the war, but not on his terms.

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