War Stories

Where the Elite Meet Defeat

Saddam’s hugely overrated Republican Guard.

It came as a surprise—presumably no less to Iraqi commanders than to American commentators—when the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division launched their final push toward Baghdad Tuesday night, aiming to punch through the Republican Guard’s most built-up defenses. The surprise was that the move came before U.S. reinforcements, especially from the 4th Infantry Division, had arrived in the field. The concern is whether a mere two divisions, plus elements from the 101st Airborne and the 2nd Armored, can do the job. The good news, though, is that the Republican Guards aren’t very good and never really have been.

News stories have long referred to these Iraqi units as the “elite Republican Guards.” The honorific stems from the months leading up to the first Gulf War, in 1990-91, when long-ignored specialists on the Iraqi army—mainly from the CIA and the U.S. Army War College—brought out their charts and forecasts of how ferociously these top-of-the-line divisions would fight. The phrase “war-hardened” was also frequently invoked, referring to the Iraqi force’s eight years of experience in the war against Iran.

However, once the ground war phase of Operation Desert Storm got under way, the Republican Guard folded in a mere three days (though, granted, after nearly 40 days of aerial bombardment). The U.S. force that pushed the Iraqi army out of Kuwait in ‘91 was larger than the force that is now preparing to take Baghdad, but it also turned out to be larger than necessary. The plan in Desert Storm was for the Marines to mount a direct assault on Iraq’s defensive positions and essentially hold the Republican Guards in place, while the Army swung around from the west and surrounded the guards, crushing them and blocking a retreat. As it turned out, the Republican Guards were so weakened (and the Marines so tactically deft) that the Iraqis fled before the Army completed the envelopment. (This led to the massive U.S. airstrikes against the retreating Iraqi troops on the “highway of death,” reports of which prompted the first President Bush, on the advice of then-Gen. Colin Powell, to cease fire as a humanitarian gesture—most unfortunate, as the surviving Republican Guards proceeded to slaughter the leaders of an incipient anti-Saddam uprising in southern Iraq. And so here we are once more.)

The point is that the Republican Guards are elite troops compared with the rest of the Iraqi army, but they wouldn’t score well in a worldwide competition.

Saddam Hussein created the Republican Guard in 1980, as a Praetorian guard to provide security for his regime. Initially, its ranks were filled entirely with natives of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown. However, the corps expanded into a spearhead force during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam gave them extra training, higher salaries, new cars, subsidized housing, and the best weapons available—Soviet T-72 tanks and BMP armored personnel carriers, French and Austrian self-propelled howitzers. Even so, their most successful battles in the late 1980s, toward the end of that war, were largely set-pieces. They never penetrated more than 40 miles into Iranian territory and even then it was against no opposition. The Republican Guards fought well on the defensive and even learned how to coordinate the maneuver of tanks with artillery and infantry. But they never fought well against a competent force and never, until Desert Storm, had to deal with an adversary whose army was escorted by combat aircraft.

The ‘91 Gulf War reduced the Republican Guards to about half of their prior strength, and they haven’t rebuilt much in the 12 years since. They are still equipped with the same weapons and are probably short on stocks and spare parts. Meanwhile, the U.S. arsenal is far more lethal than it was back then, due mainly to the greater precision of its bombs and missiles, and U.S. troops are trained to fight with more aggressive and flexible tactics.

As long as the Republican Guards are compelled to fight in a fairly conventional style, they are doomed—even when faced with lighter-than-desired U.S. forces. There is no reason to doubt this morning’s report from U.S. Central Command that the 1st Marine Division has “destroyed” the Republican Guard’s Baghdad division on the southeastern outskirts of the capital. We will probably soon hear similar reports about the 3rd Infantry’s assault on the Medina division to the west. Basically, if the Republican Guards remain dug in, they will be outmaneuvered; if they venture out to fight, they will be outgunned; whatever they do, they will be bombed and strafed from the air.

None of this means the road to Baghdad is now the proverbial cakewalk. The Army and Marine supply lines are still stretched thin and may stretch thinner as the troops and tanks roll on, tempting further guerrilla strikes and ambushes from the flanks and the rear. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that elements from several Republican Guard divisions, which had been deployed north of Baghdad, have moved to the south—in some cases abandoning their armored vehicles and, like the Fedayeenguerrillas, firing machine guns and grenades from the back of pickup trucks. It is hard to see how such tactics can succeed in the long run, but they can slow the American advance and divert U.S. troops into the grim attrition of “search-and-destroy” missions, which have never been our strong point.

Then there is the war’s next chapter, the battle for Baghdad itself. If Saddam’s regime has not already crumbled by the time U.S. troops are ready to enter the capital (and that time may come very soon—CNN has just reported that some troops are a mere 15 miles from the city’s southern edge), this battle may include block-by-block, door-to-door fighting. Urban warfare in Basra and Nasiriyah has provided a small taste of what may lie ahead. Baghdad of course is much larger, and its rooftops and alleyways are likely to be riddled with hundreds or thousands of armed resisters from the Fedayeen and redeployed soldiers.

The current head-on tank battles against the Republican Guard, the subject of much dread anticipation before the war, may turn out to be the easiest phase of all.