Don't Panic January 22 2003

How strong is Iraq's military?

Before Gulf War I, the American news media hyped the Iraqi military like Enron execs at a company shareholders meeting. We were constantly reminded that Iraq had the fourth largest army in the world — a force battle-hardened by a brutal eight-year-long war with neighboring Iran.

Saddam promised us the "mother of all battles," but when the fighting finally started, it was more like the "infant-second-cousin-twice-removed of all battles."

So thoroughly did the United States and its allies whoop Iraqi butt that the biggest cause of American casualties was the over-enthusiastic pinning of medals to chests. Well, not really. But with only 146 Americans killed in action, fighting Iraq in 1991 was safer than living in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles that same year.

What we failed to note at the time was that, while largely successful against Iraqi civilians and Kuwaitis who didn't fight back, Iraq's military had a much spottier record fighting against other armies. The 1980-'88 war against Iran ended in a tie (the U.N. didn't institute the overtime rule until 1996). Prior to the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq had contributed forces to numerous Arab-Israeli wars, all of which the Arabs lost. By the time of Gulf War I, Iraq may have had the strongest Arab military, but that wasn't a terribly prestigious honor. It's kind of like owning the fastest turtle.

For Gulf War II: The Phantom Menace (check out the trailer, it's awesome!), the conventional wisdom is that Iraq's military is weaker than it was during Gulf War I. In 1990, Iraq had about 1 million active troops and another 500,000 reservists (passive troops?). Recent estimates put Iraq's current active troop strength at about 350,000. Iraq also has fewer than half as many tanks and aircraft as it had in 1990. Their air defenses have been weakened by years of bombing that continues to this day.

Additionally, satellite photos show that the mustaches of Iraq's top officers are 40 percent less bushy than they were in 1990. Since a full, thick mustache is viewed as a sign of virility and manhood in Iraq, this indicates that Iraqi forces are truly weakened.

Troop, weapon and mustache counts don't really tell the whole story though.

If they did, this column would end here and the editors of this paper would be pissed. As far as U.S. forces are concerned, Gulf War I showed that the bulk of Iraq's military is good at only two things: dying and surrendering. This time though, we're going into Iraq itself with the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. That could bring us into combat with Saddam's elite fighting force, the Republican Guard. So-named because they protect Iraq from angry Republican presidents, the Republican Guard is equipped with the most modern tanks in Iraq's arsenal. Its troops are volunteers selected for their loyalty to Saddam. They're more likely to fight us (and fight us hard) than the main forces we faced in 1990. Saddam also has a personal fighting force of between 15,000 and 26,000 called the Special Republican Guard. From their heavily armored short buses, their mission is to protect Saddam. If Saddam's most loyal forces fight the U.S. in Iraq's cities, we might see heavy American casualties. Then again, we might not.

The other big question mark is chemical and biological weapons. Maybe that's two question marks. Our intelligence says that if Saddam feels like he's going down, the likelihood that he'll use chemical or biological weapons on us or on Israel (via missile) increases. That won't win the war for Saddam, but depending on how well prepared we are, it could inflict a horrible and heavy toll on our troops. Experts disagree on how ready our troops are for a chemical or biological attack. Our last combat experience with chemical weapons was World War I: The Kaiser Strikes Back.


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