The War Through Saddam’s Eyes

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

March 21, 2003

So far so good. U.S. intelligence got a lucky break that senior Iraqi leaders, perhaps including Saddam Husayn himself, would be located at a site south of Baghdad and the military was able to hit the target, possibly killing several of those present. U.S. Marines and British troops have secured the al-Faw peninsula and taken the critical port of Umm Qasr. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is flying across Iraq’s southern desert toward the Euphrates river valley, and no more than 30 of the hundreds of oilfields in southern Iraq have reportedly been destroyed.

But with the war still in its earliest stages it would be premature to break out champagne. There is still a long way to go.

As best we understand it, Saddam’s basic strategy is to give up southern Iraq and instead make his stand at Baghdad. For the most part, he has left the demoralized and less-capable regular Army to defend the periphery of the country with the mission of slowing and attriting U.S. forces as best they can. In truth, he probably is not expecting very much from them. His four best Republican Guard divisions are dug-in around Baghdad and Tikrit, and his Special Republican Guards are holding down the capital itself. U.S. intelligence believes that Saddam has distributed chemical warfare munitions to the Guard formations around Baghdad, but there is no evidence he has given any to the Army formations in the hinterlands.

With the exception of the opening strike against his command facility, Saddam probably has not seen anything happen that he did not expect. So far, Iraq’s regular Army units in the south have not offered much resistance to Anglo-American forces, but they were never expected to. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division is driving across empty desert. Altogether, the U.S. has not occupied anything that Saddam probably did not expect us to. What’s more, the air campaign that Iraq had to endure in the first three days was much lighter than he probably expected. The U.S. delayed until today the massive air campaign that had been planned for the war’s start. Although speculation runs rampant, it does seem that Central Command changed its plans and held back the brunt of the air effort in hope that internal problems within Saddam’s command structure—possibly resulting from the first night’s decapitation strike—might produce the fall of Saddam’s regime with minimal loss of life.

Even the limited destruction of Iraq’s oil wells may not have been terribly disconcerting for Saddam. Only 15 to 30 of the hundreds of oil wells in southern Iraq have been destroyed and, according to initial reports, the vast majority of the rest have been captured intact. It was never a certainty that Saddam intended to destroy all of his oil wells: as best we can tell, Saddam always expected to prevail in this war and so would want to preserve his country’s greatest source of wealth. He may have ordered the destruction of only a few of the wells to create hazards for U.S. air forces, or as a threat of the kind of devastation that might occur if the U.S. continues on to Baghdad. Even if he did intend the destruction of all of the oil fields, and his troops simply did not execute the order, Saddam may not see this as a significant setback. He probably never believed that destroying the the oilfields would be a decisive blow to the U.S. war effort.

Consequently, Saddam probably has not seen anything so far to make him change course or change strategy. At least as far as the military campaign itself is concerned, he probably sees no reason to panic. Unless the decapitation strike on Wednesday night has killed key Iraqi leaders or prompted others to move on Saddam, there is no reason yet to expect Saddam to flee, surrender, or take any other action that might bring this war to a quicker close.