Pentagon planners once dreamed Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard might lay down arms rather than fight superior U.S. forces. But now two divisions of his army's elite — roughly 20,000 Iraqi troops — await the Americans on the approaches to Baghdad from the south.
To make the confrontation more complicated, those troops are dispersing. The United States and its allies invaded Iraq pledging to spare its citizenry of hardship and death as much as possible — a pledge the Republican Guard is taking to heart.
"They're not in their final fighting position," one senior U.S. military official in the region says. "They're either mixed into civilian areas or they're dispersed to areas where there's religious shrines or antiquities or things like that." As of last evening, the Air Force planned to spend a night bombing Republican Guard positions almost exclusively, the military said, and planned to pinpoint its attacks. In the first night of the air war, coalition planes and naval vessels fired on 1,000 targets. Last night, the plan was for 200 targets.
Amatzia Baram, a professor and former Israeli army battalion commander who has studied Iraq's military for years, says the Guard will take advantage of U.S. pledges to limit civilian deaths and is prepared to fight a war in populated areas. "Their tanks are not as good as American tanks but they'll hide their tanks behind houses," he predicts. "The soldiers will be inside houses. They know this is America's weak point." He added U.S. forces should expect them to use chemical weapons.
Iraq's Republican Guard has a total of six divisions, each with around 10,000 troops. Directly in the line of the Army's Third Infantry Division lies the Medina Division, which is based near the city of Karbala. Just to the east of them is the Baghdad division, an infantry force near the town of Kut, in the path of the U.S. First Marine Division. The Baghdad division is the one thought most likely to use chemical weapons.
Further north, and west of Baghdad, is the Hammurabi division, near the town of Ar Ramadi. Closer in to Baghdad is the Al Nida division. The remaining two divisions are divided between the north and the south of the country.
Saddam began building up the Republican Guard as the core of his defense during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Signaling its importance, the Guard has been under the direct command of Saddam's youngest son, Qusay, since the end of the first Persian Gulf War. Under him, the top two commanders as well as three of the six current division commanders come from the Hussein family's tribal village of Tikrit. So do about 30 percent of the lower-ranking officers. Qusay Hussein's mentor, Gen. Abdel HamidMahmood, also from Tikrit, helps organize the ranks. Plucked early from the regular army or university, Republican Guard troops traditionally have enjoyed considerable perks, including higher salaries, automobiles, housing subsidies and even personal audiences with the Iraqi dictator. The Guard enjoys a reputation for fierceness among U.S. veterans of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. When U.S. planes in that conflict strafed Iraqi tanks, often setting them ablaze in the process, Iraq's regular army officers began abandoning them. Not so the Republican Guard, who didn't retreat until they received the order from Baghdad.
Nonetheless, Mr. Baram says Guard units are hardly a match for the U.S. coalition. He estimates a quarter of the Guard's 800 advanced tanks have been cannibalized for parts since the Gulf War. Mr. Hussein has further weakened the Guard by regularly shuffling or purging commanders to ensure none gain too much power.
That isn't to say the Guard can't do great damage. All of the Republican Guard units are highly mobile, rather than deeply entrenched in their locations. Indeed, one of the problems American troops face is the fact the Medina division, the one to be encountered first, has dispersed its troops across a wide front, including into urban areas, officials say.
Even if the U.S. dispatches the Republican Guard, that won't be the end of Iraq's options. The Special Republican Guards and the Special Security Service are based in the capital of Baghdad itself. Though coalition forces have destroyed many of these forces' buildings, it's unlikely the units themselves are dead.
Analysts say Special Republican Guard troops have the closest ties to Saddam Hussein, and the best pay and perks. Gen. Kamal Mustafa, believed to be the head of the Special Republican Guard, is related by marriage to Mr. Hussein. These troops are living with their families in Baghdad, which may give them more of an incentive to defend it.
As the U.S. advances on the city, it's unclear how it plans to draw the Guard out. "It's a good question," one military official says, "and I don't know that it's been answered."