How the US Demoralised Iraq’s Army
by Robert Fisk
May 31, 2003
“They would talk in Arabic with Egyptian and Lebanese accents and they would say, ‘We have taken Nasiriyah, we have captured Najaf, we are at Baghdad airport’. It was the psychological war that did the worst damage to us. The Americans knew all our frequencies. We had no radio news broadcasts, just the Americans talking to us on our radio net. I could have replied to those voices but we were ordered not to, and I obeyed for my own security”
For the brigadier general commanding Baghdad’s missile air defences last month, the voices that cut into his military radio traffic were what signalled the end of the war.
“I would talk to my missile crews and suddenly the Americans would come on the same frequency,” he said yesterday. “They would talk in Arabic with Egyptian and Lebanese accents and they would say, ‘We have taken Nasiriyah, we have captured Najaf, we are at Baghdad airport’. It was the psychological war that did the worst damage to us.
The Americans knew all our frequencies. We had no radio news broadcasts, just the Americans talking to us on our radio net. I could have replied to those voices but we were ordered not to, and I obeyed for my own security.”
In the years to come, the Anglo-American invaders and the Iraqi army that resisted them will try to produce a history of Saddam Hussein’s downfall; but the brigadier general he asked that his name should not be used, to protect his family is one of the most senior Iraqi officers so far to have given a version of the last days of the Saddam regime.
In an interview with The Independent yesterday, he described how Republican Guard regiments were withdrawn from the desert west of the capital to Baghdad on the orders of Saddam’s son Qusay soldiers vital to the city’s defence who took off their uniforms and went home.
The general’s 30 batteries around Baghdad fired just over 200 Russian-made Sam 2, 3, 6 and 9 anti-aircraft missiles at American and British aircraft, with several French-made rockets; he lost 30 of his missiles crew members, with another 40 wounded. “They were my men and I knew them all,” he said. “Their bodies were taken to the military hospitals where their families collected them.”
The white-haired ex-general talked to me in the home of a relative, a house furnished with giant china pottery and chandeliers. The conversation was interrupted by a constant supply of tea, the noise of children and the hissing of the generator-powered air conditioning. But nothing could take away from the drama of his story.
Baghdad’s anti-aircraft missile commander realised the end was near, he said, when he fired his last missile, a Sam-3, from a battery in the Dijila area of Baghdad at a low-flying US aircraft at 8pm on 8 April, the night before American forces arrived in the city centre.
“Just after that, we lost all our telecommunications with our most senior officers. In my headquarters, we stayed at our post, in uniform. Then on the morning of 9 April, we went out in civilian clothes to check on our crews in the city.
That’s when we saw the looting and we realised everything was finished. At that moment, we remembered what happened in 1991 [after the Iraqi rebels in the south and north of the country rose up in response to President George Bush Snr’s appeal] at that time, the robberies had started and there were many killings of army officers. For us, that was the end.”
Like many other senior officers in the Iraqi defence forces the general was a serving soldier and had little contact with Saddam’s Republican Guards or the Baath party militias he believed until the last moment that war could be averted.
Even after the Anglo-American invasion began, he thought the initial setbacks around Basra and Nasiriyah would force the Western armies to open negotiations for a ceasefire.
He said: “Our own troops were fighting in the south much better than around Baghdad. They had help from the people in the villages, the tribal people. The Americans and the British thought these people would support them, not fight them.
“The defence of Baghdad was planned with two belts of army defenders, one set 100 kilometres from the city, the other at 50 kilometres. “Our southern troops were in real fighting in the south in the first days of the war but on about 30 or 31 March, the Republican Guard were ordered out of the deserts and back into Baghdad. We don’t know why. The order came fro Qusay and his officers. We then learnt that many of their soldiers, with other fighters, were told to leave their duties and stay at home. We found out that most of them had specific orders to stay at home.”
When the regular army in the south heard the same news, the general said, their resistance, which had hitherto prevented the capture of a single city by American or British forces, began to collapse.
It was on 6 April that the southern Baath military commander, Ali Hassan al-Majid called “Chemical Ali” for his gas warfare against the Kurds ordered the regular army to abandon the south of Iraq and redeploy north for the defence of Baghdad.
He said: “When we were working in my operations room and we heard that the
Americans had arrived in the city, none of us there believed it.
This was impossible, we thought. There was a story that the Republican Guards had abandoned their desert positions because of the heavy attacks by the American B-52 bombers but this could not be true.
“They had experienced worse bombing during the 1991 war.
No, they just left their armour on the roads, in the fields, in the desert, all the equipment of the Medina division and the Hammurabi division, and the Nebuchadnezzar division and the Akbar division, just abandoned. There was a ‘game’ in the Republican Guards.
“The result was chaos. We had to fight the occupation with far fewer troops. On 7 April, even the Minister of Defence went off with his officers to fight with some troops at the Diyala Bridge [in the suburbs of Baghdad].
“And I think it was the psychological war that won over the ‘real’ war for us. Those Americans talking to us over our own radios that was what succeeded. We could no longer talk to each other on the radios. But we could hear the Americans.”
Since 9 April, the Soviet-trained general and his former fellow officers have spoken of little except the war, contemplating the supremacy of American arms “their air-to-air missiles had a range of 120 kilometres,” he said, “ours only 30 kilometres” and the weakness of Iraq’s inferior military equipment.
“Their planes could detect our radar and fly faster than my missiles and then turn round and bomb my crews. So I would send only one battery to engage an American aircraft and keep the rest safe.
We shot down 12 American planes around Baghdad. We saw them fall. But the
Americans rescued the crews and took away the wreckage.” Hope springs eternal, perhaps, among the defeated.
Robert Fisk is an award winning foreign correspondent for The Independent (UK), where this article first appeared. He is the author of Pity Thy Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (The Nation Books, 2002 edition). Posted with author’s permission.