Dubious loyalty to Saddam


Why were so many Iraqi troops ready to surrender on Day One of the ground war? One gets the impression that Saddam Hussein's occupying army in Kuwait spent more time preparing the white flags of surrender than they did preparing the guns of battle.

What got them primed to become POWs? The most obvious answer is the air war. Nearly 40 days of attacks -- some 90,000 sorties -- by allied warplanes "softened up" the Iraqi troops, the Pentagon tells us, using one of those gentle euphemisms that cloak the horror of a sustained air war against an army that had virtually no protection.

We probably will never know how many Iraqi troops were killed in these raids, but the estimates are running into the thousands. We know that B-52s have been bombing large strips of desert for weeks, presumably large strips of desert thought to contain large numbers of Iraqi soldiers and tanks. We know that Saddam, suicidal military strategist, concentrated all his forces in southern Iraq and Kuwait instead of spreading them out across the countryside, making them easy targets for allied pilots. One pilot, quoted last Friday in a press pool report, likened his attacks on Iraqi artillery and tank units to shooting targets in a video arcade.

We know that, a few weeks ago, the U.S. dropped some 15,000-pound bombs on Iraqi lines. These huge bombs, dropped out of cargo planes, were meant to shock as much as they were meant to destroy, adding a strategic exclamation point to an already intense air war. And there was napalm and air-explosive bombs. Add to that thousands of attacks by fighters and helicopters.

There's every reason to believe that most of the Iraqi troops who surrendered yesterday were shocked out of their minds by the power of the air assault. They might have been ready to surrender two or three weeks ago.

They might have been willing to surrender even before that. Even as far back as August, when they heard President Bush had gathered the support of several nations in an attempt to repel Iraq's army from Kuwait.

That so many of them surrendered so fast makes one wonder what kind of an army this was from the start.

The mass surrenders indicate that this was, in large measure, an army of dubious loyalty to Saddam. Military analysts tell us that loads of them were poor and uneducated Iraqis who signed on just to eat. After he had subjected his nation to nearly nine years of horrific war with Iran, it is possible Saddam found that the only way to keep an army -- that is, beyond his well-trained, well-fed and well-equipped Republican Guard -- was to offer them little choice: No jobs at home but a steady income and three squares a day via military duty. And if any of them had doubts or questioned the military brilliance of their leader, they would be talked out of desertion by an officer with a gun.

Not all of them, to be sure. But probably many of them.

For, if they had been determined to wage the Mother of All Battles, if they were convinced that sacrifice ensured martyrdom, many more of them would have put up a fight once the ground war began -- no matter how much the bombing had "softened" them -- if only to try to kill a few Americans.

But what happened? So many surrendered that allied commanders are worried they might not have enough room for them. There could be a couple of soccer stadiums in Saudi Arabia filled with Iraqi prisoners by the end of the week. His troops evidently are not as stupid as Saddam thought they were. Most of them appear to have decided that annexation of Kuwait -- and all the plundering and violent fun that went with it -- was not worth dying for, after all. Many of those who died in bombing raids might have felt the same way.

It's hard to tell -- from either 6,000 miles away or 6 inches away -- what the ordinary Iraqi soldier thinks. Maybe the invasion of Kuwait was a heady experience for them -- until it meant fighting the United States. Maybe they never imagined that the first five weeks of the war would be completely one-sided. Against Iran, they fought a ground war. In the Persian Gulf war, they've been sitting ducks for warplanes.

It's possible that they and millions of their countrymen have been forced into this mess by Saddam and his military elite. That's the tragic picture that started to come out of the desert yesterday -- thousands of prisoners of war, formerly prisoners of Saddam. It's too bad we couldn't have bargained directly with them. This war might have ended a lot sooner.

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