The Defense of Baghdad

Kenneth M Pollack
Kenneth M Pollack Former Brookings Expert, Resident Scholar - AEI

April 4, 2003

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The denouement of the war with Iraq looms as American military forces have arrived at the outskirts of the Iraqi capital. This could be the most difficult battle of the entire war. As best we understand Saddam’s strategy, he never expected to defeat Allied troops in Iraq’s hinterlands—only to hinder and bloody them. Instead, he always seems to have believed that the decisive battle would be fought at Baghdad, where loyalists from the Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard, Fedayeen Saddam, and other security forces could take advantage of the urban terrain and bog down the allied attack in bloody street-to-street fighting—or even deter it altogether.

For this reason, Saddam may well remain confident that he can still prevail. Strange as it may sound, the war still has not yet diverged significantly from Saddam’s expectations, as best we understand them from his prewar speeches and military dispositions.

Nevertheless, Saddam has a real problem on his hands. While it is true that urban terrain is a great “leveller”—reducing American and British advantages in technology, firepower, maneuver warfare, and air power—city combat is difficult for both sides and Saddam’s forces are likely to have real difficulty mounting a cohesive defense.

Iraq’s first problem is that it does not have a particularly large number of trained troops. Baghdad is an enormous city, one of the largest in the world in physical size, and because defense building closes down lines of sight and fields of fire, a large number of troops is needed to properly defend it. The only trained troops in Baghdad are the Republican Guards. Although as of a week ago there may have been as many as 70,000 to 80,000 Republican Guards in the Baghdad area, those numbers appear to have declined precipitously in recent days, perhaps to 40,000 to 50,000.

At least four of the Guard divisions had been deployed along a forward defensive line stretching from Karbala to al-Kut before U.S. forces penetrated both ends of the line and threatened to perform a double envelopment of the entire position. The Iraqis did recognize the threat and seem to have started withdrawing these divisions before they were trapped, but many appear to have been destroyed or dispersed by coalition ground and air forces. Based on reports from embedded journalists, counterattacks by Republican Guard units against Allied forces approaching Baghdad were scattered and weak, and the remnants of the Guard that retreated back into Baghad appear to be disorganized and at reduced strength.

Beyond the Republican Guard, Saddam has only internal security forces with little training in conventional military operations. The 15,000 to 20,000 Special Republican Guard troops expected to be in Baghdad do not have even the Guard’s level of training in conventional military operations. They are principally riot-control troops, palace guards, and Saddam’s enforcers. They are trained to defend Saddam against coup attempts and keep control of Iraq’s population. The Fedayeen Saddam have some military training, but it is reported to be limited, and they too are used principally as internal security forces. In addition, Fedayeen personnel are thought to be of low quality. The rest of Iraq’s internal security forces have even less real military training and, in particular, have little ability to employ weapons more sophisticated than a Kalashnikov or an RPG.

Even the Republican Guards have little training in urban warfare. The Guard’s annual training cycle does not include significant segments on urban warfare, nor does Iraq have large, dedicated urban warfare training sites that would have allowed them to hone the special skills required in this type of combat. With the exception of the suppression of the Intifadah in 1991, the Guard has little experience in urban warfare and this was against poorly armed and trained rebels.

During the Iran-Iraq War, elements of the Guard did participate in the bloody fighting for Khorramshar in 1980, but 23 years later there are likely to be few veterans of that battle left in its ranks. In 1982 and again in 1987, the Guard participated in the defense of Basra against the Iranians, but this did not consist of actual urban operations. Instead, the Iraqis defended the perimeter of the city, behind multiple rings of defensive fortifications, and prevented the Iranians from ever penetrating to the city itself. Indeed, this time around, the Iraqis appear to have intended the same thing, by deploying most of the Guard along the Karbala-Kut line, 50 to 60 miles south of the capital.

None of these historical examples gives any reason to believe that the Iraqis are prepared for serious urban warfare.

Nevertheless, it is important not to dismiss the possibility of a very hard fight in Baghdad. Urban terrain is so difficult that even poorly trained troops can inflict casualties on highly-skilled forces. But this is the key: it is one thing to inflict casualties, it is something very different to actually mount a successful defense of a city.

For this reason, U.S. forces should expect Saddam’s loyalists to employ every trick they can devise to give them some advantage over their much better-trained and better-equipped adversaries. Information Minister Muhammad Sayid as-Sahhaf’s warning that Iraq would mount a “non-conventional” counterattack against U.S. forces should be seen in exactly this light. His reference to martyrdom suggests that Iraq might employ masses of suicide bombers—most likely from the Fedayeen Saddam or Special Republican Guard—or drive large numbers of civilians in front of regime loyalists. Either would serve Iraq’s purposes well, demonstrating either the zeal of those willing to sacrifice themselves for Saddam or (the regime will claim) the determination of the Iraqi people themselves to fight back against the U.S. and British invaders.