Why Baghdad was so quick to fall

No strategic analyst or military commentator around the world was able to predict what took place on the morning of Wednesday, 9 April 2003, as American armoured vehicles and marines drove into the Al- Firdaws Square in the heart of the Iraqi capital. The aim was to set the stage for the spectacular fall of Baghdad. Iraqi renegades, assisted by an American tank, demolished a huge statue of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In another scene, an American soldier covered the face of Saddam’s statue with the US flag for a few minutes before replacing it with an old Iraqi flag.

How did Baghdad fall that easily? How could that happen without any serious resistance when compared with that of Umm Qasr, Basra, the Fao peninsula, Nasseriya, Najaf, and Karbala? What was Israel’s role in the invasion? Was the Iraqi loss military or political? The list of questions is endless.

On that morning, there was a great fall as well as a great escape. Surprisingly, US soldiers did not encounter any resistance as they drove through the streets and squares of Baghdad. Instead, they were greeted warmly and scenes of anarchy, looting and destruction swiftly followed. The feelings of Baghdad’s inhabitants, as conveyed by the media, were puzzling; there was a quick shift from a sentiment of resistance of occupation to that of resentment and revolt against the institutions of Iraq’s dictatorial regime. The resolve to resist occupation and defend the homeland collapsed as anger and revolt against the regime took hold. Baghdadis overlooked the fact that defending the regime is one matter and defending the fatherland quite another.

At the time of this writing, there are many questions that baffle Arabs with respect to what really happened in the ancient land of Mesopotamia. For instance: where did the military and political leadership go that morning? Where were the Iraqi armed forces and their weapons? Where were the security and police forces? Why did everybody abandon their homeland? What made Iraqis behave in that manner, that is, looting and destroying everything? What shape will the future Iraqi government take and who will preside over it?

Arabs are also deeply concerned about whether any new government will be able to obtain the support of the Iraqi street, with all its ethnic and sectarian diversity; the role that the British and the Americans will play in any future government; and the distribution of Iraq’s petroleum resources. There are also concerns over the fate of the Kurds and whether they will be satisfied with anything less than their own independent state.

Many Arabs are wondering whether there was a deal between Saddam and the US, with Russian mediation, to concede Baghdad without a bullet being fired. Or was Saddam killed, along with his family, the Ba’ath Party and the army? They also wait for news of the Arab volunteers who went to Baghdad to participate in its great battle. But perhaps most importantly. is the conclusion of the war on Iraq a message to all Arab regimes and peoples? Is this as great a catastrophe as that of 1948?

Dozens of questions persist and answers are still being sought in a bid to assuage the collective sense of impotence that is being felt all over the Arab world over what has happened in Iraq. As the details of the military operations of this war were rather hazy, some observers were keen to focus on the battle for Baghdad as the decisive point in the conflict. They even scoured the military history books, looking for city battles that effectively altered the courses of wars.

Some analyses rather misguidedly compared the upcoming battle for Baghdad to that of Leningrad, which endured a 900-day siege with 1.25 million citizens and soldiers perishing. Others were more objective, invoking the battle and siege of Stalingrad, which lasted 30 days, resulted in 120,000 Soviet casualties and heralding a decline in Germany’s military power. Some even compared Baghdad with the allied British, American and Soviet forces and their infiltration of Berlin, Hitler’s capital.

All of these commentators were trying to draw parallels to better understand what would take place in Baghdad.

Retired Major-General Ahmed Abdel-Haleem, an expert in military strategy and member of the Egyptian Council on Foreign Affairs, attempted to solve some of these puzzles. He thinks that what happened in Iraq was the natural conclusion of a several year old internal situation in Iraq. He said that many observers and analysts were fully aware of the fragile internal situation in Iraq but chose not to air their views when the invasion commenced, as it was an issue of national security that affected the vital interests of a sister Arab country. He was fully aware that the Iraqi armed forces were experiencing real problems in the acquisition of weapons and in maintenance and training. Twelve long years of sanctions had led to a degradation in the quality of the Iraqi military and rendered them virtually helpless. Additionally, Iraqi forces on the various fronts lacked professionalism and were thus overrun in each and every battle in which they fought without much effort being required on the part of the invading forces. Thus, the battle for Baghdad ended up being not much of a battle at all.

Moreover, the military’s loyalty to the regime was weak; a factor that led many soldiers to take off their military uniforms, abandon their weapons and posts and escape to their homes. Aside from this, many Baghdadis have harboured a decades long hatred for Saddam’s regime, especially the economically deprived Shi’ites. The Shi’ites under Saddam were isolated in a dilapidated complex of housing projects that lacked even the barest essentials required for a dignified existence despite all of Iraq’s riches. This may explain what happened in “Saddam City”, far and away the largest Shi’ite stronghold in Baghdad.

Retired Major-General Mohamed Ali Bilal, commander of Egyptian forces in the 1990-91 Gulf War, believes that analysts were so concerned with the battles taking place in the south of Iraq, namely the Fao peninsula, Basra and Nasseriya, that they overlooked the three-week long air raids that took place in Baghdad. In military speak, this was the “softening up of Iraqi defences”. However, Iraqi defences were not only “softened up” but also brought to their knees.

General Bilal went on to say that, “as a professional military, we had realised that it was illogical for the Iraqi armed forces to triumph over two of the greatest military powers in the world (in addition to some units from Australia). Rather, what was realistically required from the Iraqi political and military leadership and Iraqi people was to resist for the longest possible time in the hope that increasing losses to the invaders would turn public opinion in the invading countries and the world at large against the war before occupation was possible.”

Lieutenant-General Saadeddin El-Shazili, the Egyptian army’s chief of staff during the 1973 War, believes that the great battle for Baghdad was an opportunity for the Iraqis to make the US pay a heavy price in terms of losses before the city fell into their hands. Nevertheless, it seems that American psychological warfare, which broke the Iraqi will to resist, succeeded. The city fell without any effective resistance. The US’s prior ambition had been to lay siege to the city without breaking through so as to avoid any street warfare. Even the notion of a siege was a nightmare scenario owing to the perils that might have befallen their forces. El- Shazili emphasises that besieging and strangling Baghdad, as the invaders had desired, would have been militarily and logistically impossible given the numbers of American forces available at the time. The Americans would thus have had to wait for the arrival of additional forces, such as the Fourth Mechanised Infantry Division.

In fact, in El-Shazili’s opinion the Iraqis did not lose the battle militarily, rather they lost for political reasons. As we review the theatre of operations in Baghdad, we can see that Baghdad is defensible in most battle scenarios: it is the largest Iraqi city and represents five per cent of Iraq’s area — 275 square kilometres. Baghdad is almost circular in shape, divided in the middle by the Tigris River. Baghdad encompasses five main districts: Al- Rasafa and Al-A’zamiya to the east of the Tigris, and Al-Karkh, Al-Kadhimiya and Al-Mahmoudiya to the west.

Al-Rasafa has long, wide streets: Al-Rasheed, Al- Jumhuriya, Al-Kifa, and Al-Sheikh Omar, all of which meet at Al-Tahrir Square to the south. From that square, streets branch off and connect with the Al-Rummanah neighbourhood of the Eastern Karradah Quarter. Al-A’zamiya is located at the opposite end of Al-Kadhimiya which is, in turn, connected to Al-A’zamiya via the Al-A’immah bridge. On the western bank of the Tigris, Al-Karkh faces Al-Rasafa and the southern part of Al-Kazimiya; Al-Rasafa is connected by five bridges across the Tigris and includes Al-Ma’mun, Al-Yarmuk, Al- Baya’, Al-Washash, Al-Hurriya, Al-Salam, and the Al-Uruba neighbourhoods, as well as the city of Al- Mansur. The Al-Mahmudiya region is largely rural.

The extended quarters and wide streets of Baghdad may have facilitated the use of paratroopers and helicopters and the deployment of tanks and armoured vehicles; but they would also have facilitated a considerable amount of street-fighting, had it taken place, given the abundance of side streets and alleyways.

The neighbourhoods of Baghdad are rather divided and might possibly have been isolated. For instance, Saddam City, which lies in the Al-Rasafa region, contains two and a half millions Shi’ites, whereas the Al-Karkh region, (on the western bank of the Tigris River facing Al-Rasafa and south of Al-Kadhimiya), includes the old quarter as well as the offices of large institutions and companies. Al- Sa’dun, which lies at the heart of the capital, is full of modern shopping centres, hotels and traditional bazaars. However, the existence of six bridges connecting both banks of the Tigris, the proximity of neighbourhoods, the overlapping of different quarters, and the population density would have rendered any process of dividing or isolation a dangerous adventure.

Although Baghdad’s topography renders it suitable for all types of battles, the manner and duration of confrontation around and inside the city would have depended on pre-positioned defences. Iraqi defences were prepared to confront the American forces, both outside and inside the city, however, as in 1991, the regime lost command and control over the armed forces leading to a swift collapse.

How did Baghdad fall militarily?

But, how did US forces manage to divest the Iraqi regime of its command and control over Iraqi forces? In the first couple of weeks of the conflict, US and British field commanders relied heavily on air supremacy over Iraq, attempted to quickly reach and besiege large cities, and avoided any engagement with Iraqi forces in conventional battles which might have slowed the momentum of their forces. They also fought in a way that minimised losses and their ability to manoeuver with speed and agility. These forces approached Baghdad from the southwest, southeast and the centre, and as week three began they changed their strategy to prepare the theatre of operations for the battle in Baghdad.

The new strategy relied on keeping the door wide open to all possibilities with respect to the battle ahead. The US aimed to disperse Iraqi forces around the capital and to exploit their own agility through rapid operations. Thus, they would not take heavy losses and they could accurately gauge Iraqi capabilities, all the while retaining the element of surprise.

Throughout week three, American operations were like a dress rehearsal of what the battle for Baghdad might have turned out to be. These operations relied on several major points:

First, the effective use of both actual operations and their psychological effects. This was apparent in the battles for Saddam International Airport and the southern, eastern and western suburbs of Baghdad.

Second, the continual emphasis on a potential Shi’ite revolt with US military assistance or on a mutiny taking place within the Iraqi military.

Third, breaking the Iraqi resistance by helping the British to infiltrate Basra, declaring it under their control, and taking over Nasseriya, Najaf and Karbala regardless of the extent of losses sustained by their population or the Anglo-American forces.

Fourth, isolating the capital from its suburbs through the use of air and rocket bombardment. Targetting Republican Guards units at the entrances and exits of Baghdad in order to prevent them from retreating.

US and British bombing aimed to destroy the morale and military resistance of Baghdad’s defences at both official and popular levels and to instigate discord and resentment against the regime. This is exactly what took place.

Anglo-American plans to break through Baghdad came as a result of the resistance they encountered in the towns of southern Iraq. Thus, the American military command sought to multiply the number of their air sorties and to proceed with more missile attacks, not only on Baghdad but on all of Iraq.

The escalation of Psychological and media warfare

Psychological and media warfare also had profound effects on the Iraqi people. In Baghdad in particular it pushed them to surrender. The unremitting bombing campaign, directed television and radio programmes, and leaflet barrages that called on the population to surrender and to abandon the regime had huge effects on Iraqi morale. However, satellite networks being used to convey the Iraqi point of view were the source of concern for the American planners. Indeed, Mohamed Said Al-Sahhaf, the Iraqi minister of information, practically became a media star in the days before Baghdad’s fall.

The media war continued to escalate, culminating in the third week of the war when Al-Jazeera and the Abu-Dhabi satellite network focussed their cameras on scenes of destroyed civilian homes and the human tragedy of war. The spotlight was especially intense in the high class Al-Mansour quarter, west of central Baghdad — 14 victims lost their lives in that raid. The US military viewed these media images as biased pro-Iraqi propaganda. Consequently, the Americans bombed the offices of both satellite networks in central Baghdad, killing Al-Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayyoub and seriously injuring an Iraqi cameraman in his neck. As the reporters of the two satellite networks sought refuge in the Filasteen Hotel — a media centre and residence for more than 400 international reporters — the hotel was also bombed and two reporters (of Reuters and a Spanish television network) were killed. A number of others were injured and moved to hospital for treatment.

Major-General Bilal views the American attempt to control media and information in the context of eliminating the last pockets of Iraqi resistance in Baghdad — that is, the invading forces were poised for more bombardment of residential quarters in order to tighten their grip on Baghdad. This was also the case in operations to take over Tikrit.

Naturally, the invading forces did not want the neutral or anti-war television cameras to be reporting from the killing fields, disseminating daily scenes of death and destruction to the world. Bilal also noticed that the Cable News Network (CNN) and other western networks, which escorted the invasion forces, broadcast their pictures in a manner that served the objectives of America’s psychological war. Also, their reports were subject to heavy editing. Thus, these networks were covering relatively bloodless battles waged by the invading forces, pictures of Iraqis welcoming the occupation troops, press conferences of American and British officials and scenes of looting and the destruction of the symbols of Saddam’s regime.

In contrast, Major-General Bilal points out that the Arab satellite networks covered war scenes that undermined the propaganda and psychological warfare of the US and Britain. Arab networks broadcast pictures of American and British prisoners of war, Iraqi resistance in towns, and more importantly, pictures of Iraqi victims and casualties. At this point, Bilal indicates that the invasion forces had lost the most crucial weapon in their arsenal, that is, a monopoly over propaganda. This was the invading army’s most potent weapon.

During the 1990-91 Gulf War, a propaganda monopoly was possible due to CNN’s exclusive coverage. During this war, that monopoly was broken due to the plethora of networks covering events.

It is noteworthy that the Baghdad offices of Al-Jazeera and the Abu-Dhabi satellite network are located in a residential area in the heart of the city. There were no military targets nearby and they could not have been bombed by mistake. This was confirmed by Majid Abdel-Hadi, correspondent for Al- Jazeera in Baghdad.

From Beersheba to Baghdad

It is important to consider the Israeli contribution to the American and British war effort. Israelis supplied intelligence reports regarding the military and social situation inside Iraq. They also trained US special forces for urban warfare, utilising years of Israeli experience in crushing Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories. In return, Israel obtained $10 billion in the form of aid and loan guarantees from the US administration prior to the start of hostilities with Iraq.

Some sources close to the Israeli security apparatus revealed that 10 fluent Arabic speaking Israeli officers joined the American forces in Iraq. Their mission was to participate in the interrogation of Iraqi prisoners of war. Sources also pointed out that Israeli assistance began on 5 November 2002. At that time, the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariff and USA Today published reports that security and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel was at a peak in preparation for the upcoming strike against Iraq. They also said that Israel had built special miniature towns to train US Marines in urban warfare. Two of these towns in the Negev desert were specially designed to train American Special Forces. American experts attested that these two towns included mosques, narrow streets and alleyways and even donkey carts to best simulate conditions in Iraq.

Other sources revealed that two weeks before the invasion, Israel supplied the US with military personnel specialised in urban warfare with operational experience that they had earned through missions in Palestinian refugee camps. Consequently, these Israelis played an important role in the war against Iraqis.

Military cooperation between the US and Israel has not been limited solely to logistical participation and support. The Pentagon also moved fuel storage and military equipment to Israel. It seems that this cooperation was highly successful as evidenced by the fact that an Israeli missile was dropped on Baghdad by coalition forces and its parts were shown on Iraqi television. This missile was the fruit of a joint American-Israeli military cooperation which is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Israeli army special units were also allowed to patrol the west of Iraq prior to the commencement of military operations to ensure that Iraq does not use these areas for Scud launches against Israeli cities.

The Post-War Forces

Many within the Pentagon and US Central Command believe that invading Iraq has accomplished in days what US diplomacy failed to realise in years. Thus, the role played by the political establishment in post-war Iraq must be with the full consent of the US’s military establishment.

American forces are likely to deploy on Iraq’s border with Iran, where the mostly Shi’ite opposition to the pro-American Iraqi transitional government will be positioned. Likewise, the situation at the Syrian border will require a similar US troop deployment to protect Iraq against popular resistance movements and hostile anti-American militias, which Washington suspects that Syria supports.

As opposition to the US occupation increases and the possibility of an Iraqi resistance grows, the US will follow a course of absorbing resentment and combating resistance. To this end, a process of recruiting an indigenous Iraqi military is expected. The next step would be to declare amnesty for all Iraqi military forces with the exception of the security apparatus and intelligence institutions, due to their tribal loyalty, ideological commitment and personal devotion to the defeated Ba’athist regime. Thus, the deployment and assignment of US forces is likely to be as follows:

First, forces will be required to protect the new government, its leaders and international organisations operating in Iraq. Second, forces will likely be deployed on the Iranian border in areas where hostilities are expected to break out. Third, forces will be needed to secure oil fields and facilities. Fourth, forces will be deployed on the Syrian border. Finally, forces will follow up the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction as per the US’s claims.

This requires the US to have between 70-100,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq for the medium to long- term. Allied countries are expected to commit a further 50,000 troops, provided that overall command and control is maintained by the Americans. As with the case of Afghanistan, the Americans will prefer to involve Muslim and Arab countries in this mission lest the accusation is levelled that Iraq is being occupied by “infidels”.

As for the type of forces stationed in Iraq, there will be two divisions. One is the 101st Airborne Division. The other will be a mechanised infantry division, possibly the Fourth Mechanised Infantry Division. If hostilities break out with Iran or Syria, then one of the divisions will have to be armoured. In order to make its presence felt, US forces will need two infantry brigades with air and surveillance capabilities so as to be deployed on Iraq’s borders. Special Forces will also be needed in order to track down Saddam Hussein and his deputies.

As per the experience of Kosovo, the cost of each soldier in Iraq is likely to be approximately $120,000 per annum. Thus, the overall troop deployment in Iraq is likely to cost between $15-$20 billion per annum.

Baghdad did not fall

When the Iraqi ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Al-Doori, told reporters gathered in front of his residence in New York that, “the game is over,” everybody thought that Iraq had admitted defeat and would submit to the occupation. What Al-Doori meant, something that was subsequently realised by every Iraqi, is that Saddam’s regime had fallen but Baghdad did not fall.

When the dust settles and the initial euphoria over the collapse of Saddam’s regime subsides, Iraqis will realise that they are facing a US and British occupation fuelled by greed for oil and Zionist aspirations. It is, thus, inevitable that there will be popular resistance to American occupation and the American supported transitional government. The resistance militias will find support from various organisations and countries that also oppose the American occupation of Iraq. They will find that the looting of Iraq was allowed to happen to increase the bill of Iraq’s reconstruction and subjugate the Iraqi people. Why were Iraqi universities, their scientific facilities, medical institutions and the French, German, and Chinese embassies the prime targets of destruction and looting? In stark contrast, Iraq’s oil fields have been under the very tightest of security ever since the invasion began.