Bush Administration officials have concluded that the outcome of the Persian Gulf War--and the long-term stability of the Middle East--hinges on the destruction of the elite Republican Guard units, which remain under round-the-clock bombardment from allied warplanes.
Administration strategists believe that crushing the 150,000-man Republican Guard will drive a stake through the heart of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime and lead to the collapse of the rest of Iraq’s million-man army.
Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, said Friday that initial assessments indicate that the aerial assault on guard units is beginning to produce results.
“We believe we are having a significant impact on them, but we can’t prove that from the type of information that we have in front of us right now,” he said.
The guard, which is entrenched and dispersed throughout northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, is as critical to Iraq and as threatening to its neighbors as are Baghdad’s chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, officials said. It also represents the most formidable force that U.S. and allied troops would face in a ground offensive, adding urgency to the Administration’s efforts to eliminate it.
Although public statements of Administration policy are less explicit, officials have acknowledged privately that annihilation of the guard has become a primary war objective and would continue even if Hussein suddenly embraced a peaceful solution to the conflict.
“We’re not interested in the orderly withdrawal of his intact army,” said a senior Administration official. If the Republican Guard were left intact, either by an early Iraqi surrender or a failure to target the elite troops with sufficient force, “it would pose a grave threat to the security of the region,” the official said.
“It’s going to take an awful lot to get us to stop,” said another top Administration official.
The Administration has said repeatedly that the goal of Operation Desert Storm is still the eviction of Iraqi troops from Kuwait and the restoration of the Al Sabah family to the seat of government. But top military officials have acknowledged their special interest in the fate of the Republican Guard.
“That’s the unit that he used to take Kuwait. Those are the units that he used in his war with Iran for offensive purposes. They are the heart of the regime,” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said this week.
Cheney said the Republican Guard is not only central to Hussein’s military capability but it also underpins his political power. The guard is by far the best-equipped, most-disciplined and fiercely loyal unit of the Iraqi armed forces.
“If the Republican Guard crumbles, I don’t think the ground forces in Kuwait would be willing to fight to the last trench,” said Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), who has been briefed by Pentagon officials about the war. “Destroying the Republican Guard could even lead to a collapse of the regime in Baghdad.”
Administration officials concede that they remain far from this goal, in spite of more than a week of crushing bombardment from allied warplanes, including the formidable B-52 bomber.
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not know yet how much damage allied air strikes have wrought on the guard. Intelligence analysts report that some units have suffered 40% damage, while others appear untouched, Powell said Wednesday.
Military officials have said that the bombardment is problematic because the guard units, which are armed with Soviet T-72 tanks, are dug into steel-reinforced concrete bunkers and spread out over a wide area in southern Iraq and south of Basra in Kuwait.
“They’re spread out. They’re dug in. They’re hiding. They’re not standing out there like a building. They’re avoiding air attack,” Powell told reporters. “They are going to put out dummies to try to deceive you as to their exact locations. . . . They are going to dig in their lines of communication. They are going to put in overhead cover. Those tanks are designed not to be easily destroyed. And so, going after that kind of unit is a much more difficult proposition.”
Pilots involved in the night-and-day effort to pound the Republican Guard into submission underscored the difficulty of the task in interviews in Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a monstrously big army,” said Capt. Jeff Gurney, 32, an F-16A fighter pilot flying strike missions against the guard’s network of logistic support. “Basically, when you hit the ground, you’re going to get the army someplace.”
Powell said he would be “the happiest guy in the world if one day one bomb goes in on a Republican Guard unit and they say, ‘That’s it. We break--can’t take any more. We’re heading home.’ ” But Powell said he cannot count on subduing the enemy with bombardment alone and is proceeding with plans for a major ground offensive to destroy the guard units and Iraq’s 400,000 other troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq.
Even if Hussein unexpectedly cries uncle in an effort to save his Republican Guard from decimation in a ground war, U.S. officials made clear they would be reluctant to listen.
“Our military action under way will not stop unless there is tangible evidence that all United Nations sanctions have been implemented,” said a senior Administration official involved day-to-day in the war. “Given Iraq’s behavior in the past, there would be a lot of skepticism” about any call for a cease-fire, the official said. “We would not stop simply on the basis of potential or promise.”
Even if Hussein makes a credible peace overture, said a knowledgeable military officer, allied forces, at a minimum, will want to round up the guard in an act of mass humiliation.
“If they’ll surrender, that’s fine, we’ll take it,” said the officer. “We’ll be happy to process POWs.”
According to Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), a member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, the strategy of targeting the Republican Guard is designed to leave Hussein with two distinctly unpalatable outcomes: The guard is reduced to surrender, or it is decimated in fighting against U.S. and British ground forces.
In either case, McCurdy said, Hussein’s prestige in the Arab world will have been dealt a severe blow.
“I think his Republican Guard is going to be a pretty limp weapon after this,” McCurdy said. Without his most capable forces, Hussein’s attempts at coercion would be toothless. “And his long-term appeal in that region is going to be less if he backs down and saves his guard,” he said.
The destruction of the Republican Guard in combat could be a more fatal blow still to Hussein, McCurdy added.
“If you make the argument that we should destroy the Republican Guard, then you might as well say that Saddam Hussein should not be there at the end of the war,” the lawmaker said. “If he’s willing to give those forces up, then martyrdom might be his only recourse.”
If the Republican Guard remains holed up, the Administration will have what some officials believe is its preferred outcome. In Powell’s fighting words, “it is sitting there, waiting to be attacked, and attacked it will be.”
But if the guard comes out of its trenches and, in a bid to save itself, tries to move north, “they’re really going to get pounded” by U.S. aircraft, McCurdy said. “If they don’t have white flags flying--if they pick up and start moving north, they’re dead,” he said. “If they start flying their white flags, we’ll go up and collect them.”
As allied warplanes continued their drive Friday to break the back of Hussein’s prized force, one senior military commander reported progress.
“These troops are in the open desert, and there must have been a very high level of attrition, higher than we’re able to identify and higher than we’re therefore prepared to admit publicly,” Lt. Gen. Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces in the gulf, said at a briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“There’s evidence from prisoners we’ve captured and . . . from a certain number of defectors who’ve come across that there are a substantial number of Iraqis who would like to see the end of this war sooner and before they’re dead.”
THE IRAQI ELITE
WHO THEY ARE:
The Republican Guard is Saddam Hussein’s highly trained, highly privileged elite military corps; it has been called an army within an army. Originally established to protect Hussein, it had been known as the Presidential Guard, and was composed of troops from Hussein’s home village near Tikrit. It is believed that the force enjoys superior living quarters and food, higher wages and top-quality equipment compared to other troops. NUMBERS:
During the Iran-Iraq War, it numbered six divisions and was thought to be between 100,000 and 150,000 men; within the last month, up to five divisions may have been added. BACKGROUND:
Force fought in most major battles of the Iran-Iraq War, where members’ reputation as tough, high-skilled, motivated combatants was formed. Used primarily to spearhead attacks. It is believed the Republican Guard led the Kuwait invasion. TRAINING:
The guard--now under command of Maj. Gen. Iyad Fathi Al Rawi, one of Iraq’s top field commanders--was Soviet-trained for mobility and endurance. Also trained in commando and parachute practice and to move quickly to cut off a flanking move by enemy forces. EQUIPMENT:
Estimated to have about 1,000 Soviet-made T-72 main battle tanks, heavy artillery, antiaircraft batteries with its own combat engineers, commandos, medical units, supply channels, intelligence specialists and special operations forces. Maintains its own air power, including reconnaissance and airborne early warning aircraft. THREAT:
Assumption is that the guard is heavily entrenched along the border and, with five months’ preparation, is well-protected from the allies’ heavy aerial assault. STRENGTH:
There are conflicting opinions about the corps’ real strength and skill. Some claim troops are in top condition after eight years of fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. Others say that their strength has been weakened by adding new divisions, and that compared to other Iraqi troops, they remain outstanding, but would not be superior to Western-trained forces.