Iraq's swift defeat blamed on Husseins

BAGHDAD — Saddam Hussein and his son Qusai crippled the Iraqi military through a multitude of erratic orders and strategic miscalculations, while its fighting units barely communicated with one another and were paralyzed from lack of direction, according to detailed interviews with more than a dozen former Iraqi commanders and servicemen.

These woes — compounded by incompetence, poor preparation, craven leadership and wholesale desertions of thousands of soldiers unwilling to die for Saddam Hussein — contributed to the Iraqi military's quick and stunning collapse against invading U.S. forces in early April, the former fighters said.

Typical of the erratic orders were those imposed by Qusai upon a Republican Guard unit outside Baghdad. As American forces approached the city in late March, the unit received a new order every morning to reposition its tanks. Each order contradicted the one before, infuriating local commanders, Col. Raaed Faik recalled.

But the orders had to be obeyed. They arrived by courier on slips of paper signed by Qusai, Hussein's younger son and commander of the Republican Guard.

Every time the tanks were moved from their bunkers, Faik said, a few more were exposed and destroyed by coalition air power. Meanwhile, he said, another commander was ordered to disable all three dozen of his tanks for fear they would be captured and used by Kurdish militias hundreds of miles north.

"These were the orders of an imbecile. Qusai was like a teenager playing a video war game," Faik, 33, said in the cool reception room of his Baghdad home, gesturing to his teenage son banging away on a computer combat game.

In the end, Saddam and Qusai were reduced to issuing commands from a convoy of civilian vehicles that retreated as U.S. tanks rolled into the capital, the former fighters said. Iraqi troops were largely without radios and maps. Field commanders dropped their weapons and fled. And soldiers waited in bunkers for orders that never arrived — in many cases, unaware even that Baghdad had been invaded, the fighters said.

Before the invasion, Saddam Hussein's forces had been expected to put up a fierce defense of Baghdad, and U.S. officials warned that the Iraqis might even use chemical or biological weapons. Instead, the former Iraqi fighters said, orders to use chemical or biological weapons were never given because no such weapons existed.

Iraqi forces, who did not anticipate Americans would use tanks in urban combat inside the capital city, were largely unprepared for the ensuing armored onslaught. An eventual guerrilla war — now being waged by remnants of Iraqi forces and other Arab fighters — wasn't planned for because Hussein didn't think it would be necessary, the former Iraqi servicemen said.

And tactics that could have slowed U.S. forces, such as the mining of roads leading into Baghdad, were not employed because Hussein was confident his forces would repel the Americans.

"We should have mined the roads and bridges. We should have planned a guerrilla war," said retired Gen. Ahmed Rahal, 51. "We were crippled by a lack of imagination."

The command structure was confused from the start. Hussein was wary of concentrating power in one military force in case it might launch a coup, so he had created a number of jealous rival fighting groups — including the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and the Fedayeen Saddam militia — that never spoke to one another.

While the elite units were well-armed and well-paid, many regular army infantrymen were poorly paid and given just a single magazine of ammunition, former soldiers said. Regular army commanders schemed to undermine elite units, hoarding information and avoiding confrontations with U.S. forces. And many units were segregated by tribe or ethnic group, inhibiting coordination.

"We were like 10 different armies fighting their own private wars," said Nabil Qaisy, 31, a Baath Party militiaman who said he spent the battle cowering in a north Baghdad bunker, unaware that combat was raging in the city center a few miles away.

The military's limited communications — only special units received reliable phones or radios — fell apart early on, the soldiers said. Cut off and confused, commanders resorted to sending out soldiers in vehicles to scavenge scraps of information — usually from other hopelessly uninformed units. One officer's car was crushed by an American tank on such a mission, one commander said.

The entire military was plunged into chaos. Just before the U.S. assault, soldiers said, some officers ordered military vehicles spray-painted in civilian colors, intending to drive them home for personal use after deserting. A Republican Guard unit fleeing the city descended on a regular army camp and stole its vehicles, they said. And a Republican Guard unit armed only with automatic rifles was sent to confront U.S. tanks and "was absolutely slaughtered," Col. Faik said.

Desertions soared. As U.S. forces sped toward the capital, soldiers requested — and were granted — leaves to visit their families. Units listed on paper as full strength actually were less than half that, soldiers said, and many ceased to exist overnight.

"I woke up on the morning of April 5 and an entire battalion was gone. They had become vapors," said Maj. Jaffer Sadiq, 38, a special forces commander who said desertions depleted his company from 131 men to 10 between April 2 and April 5.

After being ordered April 2 to rush to Baghdad from the northern city of Kirkuk, Sadiq said, he was told that he would be joining 4,000 Republican Guard troops defending a site in central Baghdad. But when he arrived, he counted fewer than 1,000, he said, and most had deserted by the time the first U.S. tanks cut through southwest Baghdad three days later.

In several cases, soldiers said, they were ordered to desert. On April 4, they said, a Republican Guard tank brigade commander was told to abandon his tanks south of Baghdad and have his men change into civilian clothes. Minibuses took them to the northern city of Mosul, their home base, where the soldiers simply quit and went home.

The only forces that stood and fought, soldiers said, were Fedayeen Saddam militiamen and 4,000 to 5,000 guerrillas recruited from other Arab countries, who were armed chiefly with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Some of these fighters detained — and threatened to shoot — deserting Republican Guards, soldiers said.

These fighters, along with former Baath Party militiamen, are behind most of the ongoing attacks against U.S. forces, according to the former soldiers. They said the current guerrilla campaign was not planned but emerged as these fighters regrouped after Baghdad fell.

At times in early April, these elite units went to great lengths to project a facade of invincibility — even as they were going down in defeat.

After U.S. tanks smashed through southwest Baghdad on April 5, killing nearly 1,000 Iraqi soldiers according to U.S. commanders, Fedayeen militiamen claimed victory and celebrated downtown. They displayed charred corpses they claimed were bodies of U.S. soldiers, Faik said.

"I looked closer and saw they were Republican Guards, still in their uniforms with insignia," Faik said. "I spent 12 years in the Republican Guards. I know the difference between a Republican Guard soldier and an American soldier. I was appalled."

When he returned to headquarters an hour northeast of the capital and told fellow commanders that American tanks had penetrated Baghdad, Faik said, they called him a liar. Rumors swept through Iraqi units that the Fedayeen were hoisting American corpses on bayonets and that Qusai had been presented with severed heads of U.S. soldiers, commanders said.

But the truth was becoming inescapable. By April 7, according to two former soldiers, Saddam and Qusai Hussein had been reduced to commanding the military from a roving convoy of vehicles trying to stay one step ahead of American tanks pouring into the city center that morning.

A former Republican Guard general and division commander said he met with Saddam and Qusai at the 14th of July Bridge in central Baghdad early April 7. The two leaders were in separate gold, four-wheel-drive Toyotas, said the general, who answered questions relayed by an aide on the condition that he not be identified, saying he feared arrest by U.S. occupation forces.

At that moment, the general said, the two leaders realized that most Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard soldiers assigned to defend the main palace complex had deserted.

Told that U.S. tanks were advancing on the strategic Jumhuriya Bridge, the general said, Saddam Hussein ordered 12 pickup trucks of Fedayeen to the bridge to hold off the column. "Imagine — a few pickup trucks against two battalions" of American tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, the general said.

Later that morning, the general said, Hussein changed cars, getting into an orange-and-white Nissan taxicab.

Harith Ahmed Uraibi, 24, an archivist at the Republican presidential palace who was also a Baath Party militiaman, said he fled on foot when U.S. tanks overran the palace early April 7. He stumbled upon Hussein's convoy in front of a falafel restaurant near Jumhuriya Bridge. He said the president shouted at him: "What's going on at the palaces?"

"I told him, 'Mr. President, everything is finished,'" Uraibi said. "He didn't say anything. His convoy just took off across the bridge, away from the palaces and all the tanks."

Most top officers knew nothing of Hussein's whereabouts, commanders said. And those who remained at their posts rarely received orders of any kind.

"The only order I got was to dismantle my airplanes — the most idiotic order I ever received," said Brig. Gen. Baha Ali Nasr, 42, an air force commander who said Iraq's entire fleet of MIG-23s, MIG-25s and Mirage fighters was ordered taken apart and buried. Dirt and grime in the pits and berms where the planes were buried ensured that they would never be airworthy again, he said.

The few commanders who realized how desperate the situation had become were afraid to relay honest battlefield assessments up the chain of command. "It was well known that President Hussein did not care to receive bad news," one former general said.

Others were deluded by the regime's own propaganda. Many commanders said they actually believed Hussein's hapless minister of information, Mohammed Said Sahaf, who brazenly denied that U.S. forces had entered Baghdad on April 7 and described the slaughter of Americans.

Talal Ahmed Doori, 32, a burly Baath Party militia commander and former bodyguard for Hussein's older son, Uday, recalled turning a corner in his car early April 7 and coming face to face with an American M1A1 Abrams tank posted next to a tunnel in central Baghdad.

"I was absolutely astonished," Doori recalled. "I had no idea there were American tanks anywhere near the city."

When he slammed on his brakes, a vehicle behind him smashed into his car, Doori said. Both he and the other driver sped away as the tank swung its main gun toward them.

After the information minister claimed that Iraqi forces had retaken the Baghdad airport from U.S. troops, two former commanders said, Republican Guard Gen. Mohammed Daash was dispatched to check out a rumor that four or five American tanks had survived the Iraqi counterattack.

Daash returned to his headquarters in a panic. "Four or five tanks!" the commanders quoted Daash as telling his fellow generals. "Are you out of your minds? The whole damn American Army is at the airport!"

Nasr, the air force general, said that many commanders refused to believe the situation was dire until April 7, two days before Baghdad fell. When a terrified courier arrived at his Baghdad headquarters that day and described U.S. tanks overrunning Saddam Hussein's palace complex, he said, "the looks on the faces of the officers were like each one had just discovered his parents had died."

Because each rival fighting force responded only to orders from the regime leadership, commanders were paralyzed with indecision.

"Initiative was discouraged," the former Republican Guard general said. "No one dared make a decision."

In retrospect, commanders said, it is easy to see how overconfidence and erroneous assumptions about the U.S. battle plan left the Iraqis unprepared for the assault on the capital.

Hussein, convinced that Republican Guard units posted south of Baghdad would repel American tanks, had decided not to mine highways or blow up bridges leading into the capital, commanders said. The infrastructure was left intact so that it could be used by Iraqi forces mounting counterattacks. But entire Republican Guard divisions were ravaged, first by coalition warplanes and then by tanks approaching the capital.

Hussein also was counting on high American casualties and captured U.S. soldiers to turn the American public against the war, commanders said. Video crews and interpreters were standing by to interview any captured Americans, said retired Gen. Juwad Dayni.

Commanders interviewed for this article said they were issued no orders regarding chemical or biological weapons. And they denied that Iraq ever possessed such weapons.

Iraqi military planners assumed that Americans would dare not send tanks into an urban area and did not anticipate a direct tank assault on the capital, retired Gen. Rahal said.

Several commanders said that American casualties inflicted by Somali fighters in 1993 convinced the Iraqi leadership that U.S. forces had no stomach for a prolonged urban fight — apparently overlooking the fact that the U.S. had no armor in Somalia. The Iraqi leadership prepared instead for an airborne assault on selected regime targets, building a network of defensive bunkers and trenches.

"We weren't prepared, but it didn't matter because the tank assault was so fast and sudden," said Gen. Omar Abdul Karim, 50, a regular army commander. "The Americans were able to divide and isolate our forces. Nobody had any idea what was going on until it was too late."

In fact, Karim said, he did not realize the regime had collapsed until looters attempted to break into his headquarters April 9.

The former Republican Guard general who spoke on condition of anonymity was told by Qusai Hussein at the 14th of July Bridge on April 7 to retreat with other senior commanders to a secret, prearranged site in Baghdad to await instructions. Some generals waited there until the 9th, he said, then decided to go home.

The general said that he and a few others remained. At 4 a.m. April 10, the day after Baghdad fell, Qusai arrived. He told them to await orders for a counterattack, then sped away in a convoy.

"I never heard from Qusai again," the general said.

Today, the former soldiers say they are humiliated and ashamed. They spend their days brooding at home, adrift and unemployed. Those with the rank of colonel and above are ineligible to join the new Iraqi army now being trained by the U.S.

Col. Faik, wearing jeans and sandals, said he passes most days playing with his two sons and daughter in the capital's middle-class Yarmouk district. He said he is proud of his 12-year Republican Guard career but feels betrayed by his leaders.

"Professional soldiers can't fight without orders and inspiration from their leaders," he said. "But we had clowns for leaders. This is our tragedy."

Faik said soldiers used to hear Hussein say in speeches: "Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam." So in the end, he said, "when the time came to fight for this guy who sends us unprepared to fight a superior American military, no one was willing to die for Saddam."

Karim, the regular army commander, fears the 30 years that he served have been negated by the way the military capitulated. Yet still on display in his comfortable home in central Baghdad is a framed photo showing him as a young lieutenant receiving an award from then-Vice President Saddam Hussein.

When the end came April 9, Karim recalled, he simply got into his car and drove home, still in his uniform and still carrying his rifle. Along the way, soldiers who had stripped off their uniforms shouted at him: "Take off your uniform! It's over!" He refused, he said, clinging to his professional pride.

Now, sitting on a sofa, an air conditioner rattling behind him, Karim said he cannot stop thinking about how the army he loved had been so humiliated.

"It happened so fast," he said, his head in his hands. "I think I'm still in a state of shock."

Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin contributed to this report.