Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top Threat
March 12, 2006
Even as U.S. Invaded, Hussein Saw Iraqi Unrest as Top
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
and BERNARD E. TRAINOR
As American warplanes streaked overhead two weeks
after the invasion began, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid
al-Hamdani drove to Baghdad for a crucial meeting with
Iraqi leaders. He pleaded for reinforcements to
stiffen the capital's defenses and permission to blow
up the Euphrates River bridge south of the city to
block the American advance.
But Saddam Hussein and his small circle of aides had
their own ideas of how to fight the war. Convinced
that the main danger to his government came from
within, Mr. Hussein had sought to keep Iraq's bridges
intact so he could rush troops south if the Shiites
got out of line.
General Hamdani got little in the way of additional
soldiers, and the grudging permission to blow up the
bridge came too late. The Iraqis damaged only one of
the two spans, and American soldiers soon began to
The episode was just one of many incidents, described
in a classified United States military report, other
documents and in interviews, that demonstrate how Mr.
Hussein was so preoccupied about the threat from
within his country that he crippled his military in
fighting the threat from without.
Only one of his defenses the Saddam Fedayeen
proved potent against the invaders. They later joined
the insurgency still roiling Iraq, but that was
largely by default, not design.
Ever vigilant about coups and fearful of revolt, Mr.
Hussein was deeply distrustful of his own commanders
and soldiers, the documents show.
He made crucial decisions himself, relied on his sons
for military counsel and imposed security measures
that had the effect of hobbling his forces. He did
that in several ways:
¶The Iraqi dictator was so secretive and kept
information so compartmentalized that his top military
leaders were stunned when he told them three months
before the war that he had no weapons of mass
destruction, and they were demoralized because they
had counted on hidden stocks of poison gas or germ
weapons for the nation's defense.
¶He put a general widely viewed as an incompetent
drunkard in charge of the Special Republican Guard,
entrusted to protect the capital, primarily because he
was considered loyal.
¶Mr. Hussein micromanaged the war, not allowing
commanders to move troops without permission from
Baghdad and blocking communications among military
The Fedayeen's operations were not shared with leaders
of conventional forces. Republican Guard divisions
were not allowed to communicate with sister units.
Commanders could not even get precise maps of terrain
near the Baghdad airport because that would identify
locations of the Iraqi leader's palaces.
Much of this material is included in a secret history
prepared by the American military of how Mr. Hussein
and his commanders fought their war. Posing as
military historians, American analysts interrogated
more than 110 Iraqi officials and military officers,
treating some to lavish dinners to pry loose their
secrets and questioning others in a detention center
at the Baghdad airport or the Abu Ghraib prison.
United States military officials view the accounts as
credible because many were similar. In addition, more
than 600 captured Iraqi documents were reviewed.
Overseen by the Joint Forces Command, an unclassified
version of the study is to be made public soon. A
classified version was prepared in April 2005. Titled
"Iraqi Perspectives on Operation Iraqi Freedom, Major
Combat Operations," the study shows that Mr. Hussein
discounted the possibility of a full-scale American
"A few weeks before the attacks Saddam still thought
the U.S. would not use ground forces," Tariq Aziz, the
former Iraqi deputy prime minister, told American
interrogators. "He thought they would not fight a
ground war because it would be too costly to the
Despite the lopsided defeat his forces suffered during
the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Mr. Hussein did not see
the United States as his primary adversary. His
greater fear was a Shiite uprising, like the one that
shook his government after the 1991 war.
His concern for the threats from within interfered
with efforts to defend against an external enemy, as
was evident during a previously unknown review of
military planning in 1995. Taking a page out of the
Russian playbook, Iraqi officers suggested a new
strategy to defend the homeland. Just as Russia
yielded territory to defeat Napoleon and later
Hitler's invading army, Iraq would resist an invading
army by conducting a fighting retreat. Well-armed
Iraqi tribes would be like the Russian partisans.
Armored formations, including the Republican Guard,
would assume a more modest role.
Mr. Hussein rejected the recommendation. Arming local
tribes was too risky for a government that lived in
fear of a popular uprising.
While conventional military planning languished, Mr.
Hussein's focus on internal threats led to an
important innovation: creation of the Fedayeen
paramilitary forces. Equipped with AK-47's, rocket
propelled grenades and small-caliber weapons, one of
their primary roles was to protect Baath Party
headquarters and keep the Shiites at bay in the event
of a rebellion until more heavily equipped Iraqi
troops could crush them.
Controlled by Uday Hussein, a son of the Iraqi leader,
the Fedayeen and other paramilitary forces were so
vital to the survival of the government that they
"drained manpower" that would otherwise have been used
by Iraq's army, the classified report says.
Mr. Hussein was also worried about his neighbor to the
east. Like the Bush administration, Mr. Hussein
suspected Iran of developing nuclear and other weapons
of mass destruction. Each year the Iraqi military
conducted an exercise code-named Golden Falcon that
focused on defense of the Iraq-Iran border.
The United States was seen as a lesser threat, mostly
because Mr. Hussein believed that Washington could not
accept significant casualties. In the 1991 war, the
United States had no intention of taking Baghdad.
President George H. W. Bush justified the restraint as
prudent to avoid the pitfalls of occupying Iraq, but
Mr. Hussein concluded that the United States was
fearful of the military cost.
Mr. Hussein's main concern about a possible American
military strike was that it might prompt the Shiites
to take up arms against the government. "Saddam was
concerned about internal unrest amongst the tribes
before, during or after an attack by the U.S. on
Baghdad," Mr. Aziz told his interrogators. Other
members of Mr. Hussein's inner circle thought that if
the Americans attacked, they would do no more than
conduct an intense bombing campaign and seize the
southern oil fields.
Steps to Avoid War
Mr. Hussein did take some steps to avoid provoking
war, though. While diplomatic efforts by France,
Germany and Russia were under way to avert war, he
rejected proposals to mine the Persian Gulf, fearing
that the Bush administration would use such an action
as an excuse to strike, the Joint Forces Command study
In December 2002, he told his top commanders that Iraq
did not possess unconventional arms, like nuclear,
biological or chemical weapons, according to the Iraq
Survey Group, a task force established by the C.I.A.
to investigate what happened to Iraq's weapons
programs. Mr. Hussein wanted his officers to know they
could not rely on poison gas or germ weapons if war
broke out. The disclosure that the cupboard was bare,
Mr. Aziz said, sent morale plummeting.
To ensure that Iraq would pass scrutiny by United
Nations arms inspectors, Mr. Hussein ordered that they
be given the access that they wanted. And he ordered a
crash effort to scrub the country so the inspectors
would not discover any vestiges of old unconventional
weapons, no small concern in a nation that had once
amassed an arsenal of chemical weapons, biological
agents and Scud missiles, the Iraq survey group report
Mr. Hussein's compliance was not complete, though.
Iraq's declarations to the United Nations covering
what stocks of illicit weapons it had possessed and
how it had disposed of them were old and had gaps. And
Mr. Hussein would not allow his weapons scientists to
leave the country, where United Nations officials
could interview them outside the government's control.
Seeking to deter Iran and even enemies at home, the
Iraqi dictator's goal was to cooperate with the
inspectors while preserving some ambiguity about its
unconventional weapons a strategy General Hamdani,
the Republican Guard commander, later dubbed in a
television interview "deterrence by doubt."
That strategy led to mutual misperception. When
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the
Security Council in February 2003, he offered evidence
from photographs and intercepted communications that
the Iraqis were rushing to sanitize suspected weapons
sites. Mr. Hussein's efforts to remove any residue
from old unconventional weapons programs were viewed
by the Americans as efforts to hide the weapons. The
very steps the Iraqi government was taking to reduce
the prospect of war were used against it, increasing
the odds of a military confrontation.
Even some Iraqi officials were impressed by Mr.
Powell's presentation. Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaish,
who oversaw Iraq's military industry, thought he knew
all the government's secrets. But Bush administration
officials were so insistent that he began to question
whether Iraq might have prohibited weapons after all.
"I knew a lot, but wondered why Bush believed we had
these weapons," he told interrogators after the war,
according to the Iraq Survey Group report.
Guarding Against Revolt
As the war approached, Mr. Hussein took steps to
suppress an uprising. Fedayeen paramilitary units were
dispersed throughout the south, as were huge stashes
of small-caliber weapons. Mr. Hussein divided Iraq
into four sectors, each led by a member of his inner
circle. The move was intended to help the government
fend off challenges to its rule, including an uprising
Reflecting Mr. Hussein's distrust of his own military,
regular army troops were deployed near Kurdistan or
close to the Iranian border, far from the capital. Of
the Iraqi Army, only the Special Republican Guard was
permitted inside Baghdad. And an array of restraints
were imposed that made it hard for Iraq's military to
Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, Mr. Hussein's defense
minister who had distinguished himself during the
Iran-Iraq war, held an important title, for example.
But he had little influence. "I effectively became an
assistant to Qusay, only collecting and passing
information," he told interrogators, referring to a
son of Mr. Hussein.
To protect Baghdad, Mr. Hussein selected Brig. Gen.
Barzan abd al-Ghafur Solaiman Majid al-Tikriti, a
close cousin, to head the Special Republican Guard
even though he had no field experience, had failed
military staff college and was a known drunkard. Asked
about his military skills, General Tai laughed out
loud. Even so, the Special Republican Guard commander
was closely monitored by Mr. Hussein's agents and
later told American interrogators that he had held the
most dangerous job in Iraq. "They watched you go to
the bathroom," he said. "They listened to everything
you said and bugged everything."
Once the war began, field commanders faced numerous
restrictions, including bans on communications, to
minimize chances of a coup.
"We had to use our own reconnaissance elements to know
where the other Iraqi units were located on our
flanks," the commander of the First Republican Guard
Corps told interrogators. "We were not allowed to
communicate with our sister units."
Even as the Americans were rapidly moving north, Mr.
Hussein did not appreciate the seriousness of the
threat. While the Fedayeen had surprised the allied
forces with their fierce resistance and sneak attacks,
Iraqi conventional forces were overpowered.
At an April 2 meeting, General Hamdani, the commander
of the Second Republic Guard Corps, correctly
predicted that the American Army planned to drive
through the Karbala Gap on the way to Baghdad. General
Tai, the Iraqi defense minister, was not persuaded. He
argued that the attack in the south was a trick and
that the main American offensive would come from the
west, perhaps abetted by the Israelis. That day, Mr.
Hussein ordered the military to prepare for an
American attack from Jordan.
As a sop, General Hamdani received a company of
Special Operations forces as reinforcements and was
finally granted permission to destroy the Euphrates
River bridge southwest of Baghdad. But it was too
little, too late.
By April 6, the day after the first United States Army
attack on Baghdad, the so-called thunder run, Mr.
Hussein's desperate predicament began to sink in. At a
safe house in the Mansour district of Baghdad, he met
with his inner circle and asked Mr. Aziz to read an
Mr. Hussein showed no emotion as the letter was read.
But Mr. Aziz later told interrogators that the Iraqi
leader seemed to be a defeated man, and the letter
appeared to be his farewell. His rule was coming to an
"We didn't believe it would go all the way to
Baghdad," a senior Republican Guard staff officer
later told his interrogators. "We thought the
coalition would go to Basra, maybe to Amara, and then
the war would end."