Loyalty at the Point of a Gun

Amatzia Baram
Amatzia Baram Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace; Former Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

March 28, 2003

The Pentagon’s clandestine efforts to persuade senior Iraqi officials to turn on Saddam Hussein may be the last hope of avoiding a bloody urban battle in Baghdad. While the reward is so great that the strategy is worth pursing, nobody should hold out much hope for success. The Iraqi dictator constructed his military and political system precisely for this kind of worst-case scenario.

Consider the Republican Guard. Since 1988 it has been under the direct command of the presidential palace rather than the army. Because of this, its soldiers have received the best equipment and training, and their barracks are closest to the capital city (and, for many, to their families). More than their regular army counterparts, guard officers have traditionally been able to get an audience with the president or his lieutenants, giving them great clout in Iraq’s centralized regime.

What’s more, a high percentage of officers come from Saddam Hussein’s al-Bu Nasir tribe—particularly his hometown of Tikrit or two nearby sister towns, Beiji and Dur. All guards have been put through a remarkable program of indoctrination centering on loyalty and the concept of “al-sharaf,” or manly honor: a real man never turns his back in battle.

Of course, just to be safe, Saddam Hussein has found other ways to ensure loyalty. He has long had a policy of placing security officers in every division and brigade, with the authority to arrest officers whom they consider disloyal. He has also made his men dependent on the regime for their very survival. After brutally suppressing the Shiite revolt at the end of the 1991 war, many guard officers burned their bridges with the country’s ethnic majority—they are more dependent than ever on their leader.

As for the political side of the regime, the highest officials don’t need Saddam Hussein to tell them that after an allied victory they would be facing war-crime trials. People considered responsible for thousands of civilian deaths like Ali Hassan al-Majid (known as “Chemical Ali” for his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds at the town of Halabja in 1988) and Izzat Ibrahim, who conducted the supression of Kurds in Kirkuk in 1991, know that, for them, this is a battle to the death.

But hundreds of lesser Baath Party and security service figures suspect they too will be tried by the Americans for crimes like torturing and executing political prisoners. Since Saddam Hussein became the czar of domestic security in 1968, one of his principles has been to implicate as many party members in as many crimes as possible, in order to tie them to himself in common guilt. For example, during sweeping purges that followed his rise to the presidency in 1979, he forced senior party members to take part in the firing squads that executed hundreds of his political enemies.

This mixture of fear and loyalty in the ranks not only makes surrender unlikely, but also increases the risk that Iraq might use nonconventional weapons against American and British forces. After the 1991 war several Iraqi generals told international inspectors that when Saddam Hussein began to fear a coalition march on Baghdad, he ordered missile commanders and the security officers overseeing them to launch Scuds carrying chemical or biological warheads if Baghdad were surrounded and they lost touch with him. Mr. Hussein assured these men that nobody would be punished if it turned out the launching had been premature, but the consequences would be grave for any commander who had held back.

As long as Saddam Hussein is able to maintain even the appearance of control, high-level defections seem unlikely. However, once the battle turns decisively, the efforts to entice his underlings—if they include offers of amnesty—could pay off with surrenders in the field, or at least information about where Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are hidden. After all, unlike the lieutenants of Osama bin Laden, most of those who have served Saddam Hussein during the last 20 years have been seeking paradise on earth, not in heaven.