The Lion of Babylon tank or Asad Babil was an Iraqi-built version of the Soviet T-72 MBT (main battle tank), assembled in a factory established in the 1980s near Taji, north of Baghdad.
Whenever the possibility of a new ground war against Iraq is discussed in the media, it is not long before it is pointed out the US Army is no longer large enough to field a force of the size used in 1991. What is generally not mentioned, however, is the fact Iraq is also unable to deploy a force anything like the one Saddam had at his command in 1990-91.
The end of Desert Storm, and the further wastage suffered due to the revolts inside Iraq immediately afterward, left Saddam’s ground force reduced to about 35 percent of its prewar size when measured in terms of manpower and equipment levels. It’s harder to get a sure feel for his troops’ present level of proficiency, morale and unit cohesion (the ability to keep fighting once casualties begin to be suffered). We do know, however, all Iraqi divisions, including those of the Republican Guard, are currently listing about 15 percent of their personnel as absent without leave, which is not a figure typical of high-morale armies.
Likewise, we can safely guess that the approximately 800 officers purged as a result of the four failed coups staged against Saddam since 1995 have been replaced by men selected on the basis of their personal loyalty to the dictator rather than for their tactical acumen, operational competence, or strategic brilliance. We also know that since 1990 no field training exercise has been conducted within Iraq by any formation larger than a single division. Thus we can see the Iraqi army is increasingly led by political appointees and increasingly lacks even training in maneuver and combat of the scope that would be carried on in any new war with the West.
The Iraqi ground force—which was never close to matching Western standards of morale, proficiency and cohesion even when at its peak in 1990—has only gone downhill since. As a guess, then, if we were to quantify those factors on the day the Iraqi army entered Kuwait in 1990 as having been 100, we could safely estimate today ‘ s rating in those same categories would be somewhere around 50. Looked at another way, a recently declassified Defense Intelligence Agency report estimates the overall combat power of Saddam’s armed forces is fading away at the rate of about three percent per year. (Unfortunately, the report doesn’t give any indexing start date for when that attrition rate came into effect.)
In terms of general organization, both the regular army and the Republican Guards responded to their 1991 defeat and the embargo f olio wing it by consolidating units and cannibalizing equipment. But such processes can only be carried so far, and the general sense among analysts is the Iraquis have reached their limits.
Iraq also manufactures under license most of the conventional equipment needed by its army, including tanks and armored personnel carriers. The embargo, however, has worked to ensure new equipment has arrived in numbers much lower than needed to achieve anything like full-replacement status. Fo rinstance, since 1991 the T-72 factory near Baghdad has failed to produce more vehicles than would be needed to flesh out one division. Nor can much improvement be expected in the efficiency of the military portion of the Iraqi economy. One of the tactical successes of the Desert Fox bombings was to further reduce Iraq’s overall arms production capabilities, all state owned, which are now estimated to be about a tenth of what they were in 1990.
A new element in Saddam’s force structure was introduced because one of the coup attempts came from within the Republican Guards. That coup’s failure resulted in those units losing their status as the regime’s Praetorian Guard to a new headquarters set up and personally headed by Saddam, the Office of the Presidential Palace (OPP). It contains some 25,000 to 40,000 personnel, all organized into new, super-elite, super-loyal formations.
The Presidential Guard (Heavy) Armored Division was for a time the single largest division inside Iraq, with an estimated manpower of 14,000 and a full divisional complement of tanks and armored personnel carriers, including almost all of the several hundred Iraq-manufactured “Lion of Babylon” T-72 variant, the best tank in Saddam ‘ s arsenal. This unit also came under heavy attack during Desert Fox; so much so, in fact, it appears to have been demoted on the organizational charts to a brigade-size formation now referred to as simply the Armor Command.
Saddam ‘s Fedayeen (men of sacrifice) is a motorized infantry force made up of teenage recruits taken solely from his own Tikrit clan. This is another unit which was disrupted by Desert Fox. It remains slated, however, to eventually expand to full division size.
Special Forces Unit 999 consists of four battalions each of which contain men given special training in a specific foreign language and culture, including Saudi Arabian, Persian (Iranian), Palestinian and Turkish. There’s also a fifth battalion of marines, reportedly trained to specialize in deploying frogmen and small boats to lay mines and conduct demolitions in coastal waters.
The General Security Service Rapid Intervention Brigade, the Military Intelligence Rapid Intervention Battalion, the Security Battalion of the Military Intelligence Service and the Rapid Intervention Brigade of the Special Republican Guard (apparently renamed simply the 4th Motorized Brigade) are all well-equipped—in terms of weaponry, vehicles and communications gear— motorized infantry outfits. In effect Baghdad-based flying columns, their efforts that have been responsible for keeping Saddam in power during the last few years. They have so far proven able to detect, move to engage and annihilate every coup attempt.
The last unit above also forms the vanguard of a new 14 battalion strong force of heavily armed motorized infantry organized under the command of Saddam’s younger son and heir apparent, Qusay. Called the Special Republican Guard Corps or SRG, it was set up by drawing on the most loyal members of the original Republican Guard force and has since been given the pick of recruits. Since the Desert Fox bombings, the SRG has also inherited the remnant of the erstwhile Presidential Guard Heavy Armor Division, the Air Defense Command (two regiments and three independent batteries, in and around Baghdad, armed primarily with SA-6 and SA-7 missiles), the Intelligence Bureau, the Communications Command, the Chemical Detection Platoon, and the Field Artillery Command, the Howitzer Command, the Transport Platoon, as well as a reserve infantry and self-propelled artillery regiment.
Those changes have left the original Republican Guard units to serve as little more than the mechanized core of an increasingly less mechanized (thanks to the embargo and Desert Fox) Iraqi ground force. These days only OPP and SRG units are stationed in and immediately around Baghdad. Even when in transit, no regular army or Republican Guard armored unit is allowed to remain in the capital city overnight.
Also in response to Desert Fox, in 1999 Saddam declared the return of the Popular Army, a defense concept earlier abandoned during the Iran-Iraq War. In theory at least, this resulted in the militarization of all adult Iraqi men into 19 new infantry divisions. The idea was those units would provide the margin of manpower needed to defeat the ground invasion Saddam declared was sure to follow the Desert Fox aerial offensive. In reality, it seems the Popular Army exists only on paper, a public relations stunt at most. There simply aren’t the weapons to arm them, nor the skilled noncommissioned officers (NCOs) needed to train them.
Last here, another new, interesting, but still largely untested unit in the Iraqi order of battle is the Mujahideene Khalq (MeK). This formation, said to consist of four mixed armored/mechanized infantry brigades, a commando battalion, and a helicopter squadron, along with artillery, air defense and engineer support units, is made up of some 20,000 Iranian defectors and ex-prisoners of war. The MeK is presently scattered throughout 17 bases in Iraq but would undoubtedly be brought together if a new ground war seemed imminent.
All the army restructuring described above, which really amounts to little more than cutting and recutting the same pie into different pieces, has been conducted primarily to help assure Saddam remains in power. It is difficult for anti-Saddam officers to find out if their peers are of the same mind, and hence begin to form some kind of action cell, if they continually find themselves and their units reshuffled into new command structures.
Of course, the near constant restructuring is double-edged in that officers who hardly know—let alone trust—each other cannot be expected to maneuver and fight their units well together. At the same time, the attrition suffered during the various Coalition aerial offensives since 1991 have, it is estimated, reduced the number of operative Iraqi tanks and armored personal carriers from 2,000 to about 800 of each category.
Thus the Iraqi ground force has been on a more or less steady down-slide since the move into Kuwait over a decade ago. It may well be, though, that Saddam is not counting on fighting and winning his next round with the Coalition in a war featuring his army as any kind of centerpiece. – written 2002 very prophetically by Ty Bomba.