Disposition of Iraq’s Army at the beginning of the ground war, 24 February 1991.
Saddam’s intelligence organization, the General Military Intelligence Directorate (GMID), may have shared his aspirations, but not his optimism. From the beginning of the crisis, GMID assessed the Americans as likely to attack. In August the directorate concluded that the “continuous concentration of American troops in the region affirms the intention of the Coalition forces to launch the attack.” The Iraqis surmised the attack might be exclusively from the air in the beginning. Toward the end of August, the directorate assert- ed, “While waiting for more troops to arrive, the Americans will mainly de- pend on their air superiority.” Following Bush’s announcement in November, GMID concluded, “The American administration is serious about attacking Iraq.” Despite his public pronouncements, Saddam took these warnings seriously and acted on them throughout the crisis.
The Iraqis sought to improve their estimates by using the reconnaissance resources they had. These included oblique photography, signals intelligence, and side-looking airborne radar. They also used agents to ascertain the lo- cation and activity of coalition forces. The Iraqi diplomatic corps exploited their contacts as well. In August 1990 the air attaché in Belgrade reported on a contact between the Palestinian military attaché and the director of Yugoslav intelligence. According to the Palestinian attaché, the Yugoslavs believed the United States would attack as early as the end of August. The Iraqis also interviewed line crossers and monitored Western media.
Schwarzkopf made draconian threats to his staff about security, but someone, possibly in government, talked. A great many people knew the basic out- line. In any case, the media either learned or deduced the general outlines of Central Command’s (CENTCOM’s) campaign plan. In an article in the Inter- national Herald Tribune, Leslie Gelb wrote, “Everyone seems to know that the likely scenario calls for US and British forces to wheel around Kuwait and cut across the southern part of Iraq toward Basra.” The CENTCOM concept of an attack around the Iraqi Army’s western flank was an open secret. The Iraqis simply found the idea of a great wheel around Kuwait unlikely.
Although Saddam used the Republican Guard Forces Command to seize Kuwait, he did not employ it to defend his newly acquired “nineteenth province.” Instead, he withdrew the politically reliable, mobile, and well-equipped Republican Guard and positioned it to the north of Kuwait and southwest of Basra as a strategic reserve. From this position the Guard could respond rapidly to a coalition attack into Kuwait or north along Kuwait’s western boundary. Relatively immobile infantry divisions formed the front line. To the rear of the front- line formations, they established tactical reserves, and they positioned operational reserves farther to the rear.
Initially the Iraqis established a forward defense along the Kuwait-Saudi border employing techniques generally similar to those they had employed in the Iran- Iraq War. Each of the forward infantry divisions deployed with two brigades up and one back. Each of the brigades dug in its three infantry battalions and supporting weapons including tanks. Generally, each infantry brigade could count on a tank company in support. Each of the forward corps controlled several frontline divisions. Each also had at least one mechanized or armored division as a tactical reserve. In December, the Iraqis formed a corps headquarters they called Jihad. It moved into the theater just northwest of Kuwait as an operational reserve. The Jihad Corps controlled the 10th and 17th Armored Divisions (ADs). As the buildup of coalition forces continued, the Iraqis worked to improve their positions and extend their main line of resistance west into southern Iraq.
Their method of extending west followed an easily discernible pattern. As divisions repositioned or new divisions extended the line, they refused their western flank. They did so by positioning at least an infantry battalion of each division oriented to the west supported by the division’s reserve located to their rear or north. In September an unidentified Iraqi division extended the defenses well to the west by deploying some one hundred kilometers west of the triborder region. To their east, the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division (ID) positioned two brigades to defend the Iraqi right flank west of the Wadi al- Batin. It was here that the 1 ID attacked them in February 1991.
Over the course of several weeks the Iraqi VII Corps worked to close the gap between its units and the main line of resistance in Kuwait. The efforts of its divisions were inconsistent. Some built complex obstacles including minefields, wire, antitank ditches, and in a few cases trenches filled with oil that could be set ablaze. Many of them did not establish complex obstacles; some failed to dig in adequately or develop sufficient overhead cover for fighting positions. In some places, local conditions confounded Iraqi troops’ efforts to dig because bedrock lay only three feet or so below the surface. In any case, they did not build the kind of positions described in US Army threat handbooks. Iraqi units certainly could build complex obstacles and impressive defensive positions, as they had demonstrated in the Iran- Iraq War, but they failed to do so west of the Wadi al-Batin. The lack of adequately prepared positions chiefly stemmed from inadequate supervision of hastily raised conscript units and inadequate resources including mines, wire, and obstacle materials. Farther east, where they had more time and resources, their defenses were better.
In September and October 1990 the Iraqis studied six possible “enemy” courses of action. These included a seaborne attack from the Persian Gulf supported by an attack northward along the coast. An attack more or less into the teeth of the Iraqi defense midway along Kuwait’s boot heel comprised the second course of action. The third assumed an attack north, along the western edge of the boot heel. Their analysts imagined an attack northeast from the bend in the southern boundary of Kuwait as the fourth course of action. The fifth course of action assumed an attack northeast from the southwest corner of Kuwait just east of the Wadi al- Batin. Finally, the Iraqis considered an at- tack up the Wadi al- Batin feasible. The Iraqis also positioned forces to defend the Al- Faw Peninsula against an amphibious assault.
The Iraqi Estimate of Coalition Courses of Action
The Iraqis reinforced the defense of Kuwait throughout the fall, expanding their Army to do so. Saddam’s ministry of defense increased both the regular army and the Republican Guard; it added four divisions to the Guard order of battle, although only two moved south. After Bush announced the deployment of additional US forces, Iraq moved ten more divisions into the theater. This reinforcement raised the number of deployed troops to about 500,000. They were organized in at least forty- one divisions, though there may have been as many as fifty- five. Infantry divisions comprised the bulk of the newly created formations. They were poorly equipped and not well trained. They were used to thicken defenses and close gaps. Three regular army armored divisions arrived to combine with units already in the theater to beef up the operational reserves. The three armored divisions raised the number of tanks available to 4,200. The newly arrived 17 AD and the 51 ID (Mechanized) provided mobile forces to back up three infantry divisions and one infantry brigade defending the coast north of Kuwait City. The 12 AD arrived in December 1990. That unit combined with the 10 AD, under control of the Jihad Corps, oriented on the Wadi al- Batin. In January 1991 the Iraqis formed yet another corps, with headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq. Called West Euphrates Corps, it controlled two divisions defending southern Iraq.
Iraqi planners clung to two flawed assumptions: first, they believed the US would mount an amphibious assault as part of the coalition campaign; second, they were convinced the Americans would attack up the Wadi al-Batin. They had perfectly good reasons for their conviction. CENTCOM retained an amphibious capability, suggesting the possibility of amphibious assault. GEN Schwarzkopf never intended to land Marines in Kuwait, but he kept Marines afloat and worked to deceive the Iraqis into believing an amphibious assault was coming. Just as he intended, the Iraqis honored the threat. Despite US media alleging a great flanking maneuver to the west, the Iraqis found that option implausible based on the sheer difficulty of maneuvering and navigating west of Wadi al-Batin. Featureless desert is an inadequate description of that ground. It was absolutely barren. In accordance with the CENTCOM deception plan, the US VII Corps positioned no units in the west until shortly before the attack. The 1st Cavalry Division (1 CD) moved into the area in February and conducted operations designed to create the impression the coalition at- tack would come up the wadi. For all of these reasons, the Iraqis reinforced their defenses oriented toward the wadi and along the coast. By the time the 1 ID began arriving in Saudi Arabia, Iraqi reinforcements were either on the way or in the positions they would occupy on the day the ground offensive began.