| Iraqi men line up to apply for jobs as police officers in the southern port of Basra on Thursday. (AFP)
Baghdad, April 17: Demoralised soldiers from Iraq’s Republican Guard thought Saddam Hussein was “mad” and deserted en masse before the first American tanks rolled into Baghdad, according to a colonel in the supposedly elite force.
Speaking in the shabby family quarters given to Republican Guard officers in Baghdad, Col A. T. Said explained how the units that Saddam relied on most never had any intention of fighting for his regime. In the event, American forces were able to enter the capital with relative ease last week. They confounded predictions of prolonged, costly fighting.
Saddam entrusted the Republican Guard’s six divisions with the most crucial strategic task of the war: Defending the approaches to Baghdad. Their 50,000 soldiers and 800 tanks were drawn up in a tight circle around the city.
Col Said, 42, commanded 150 soldiers in an engineer unit attached to the Hammurabi division, charged with defending the north-western approaches.
Yet even before the fighting began, Col Said said, most Republican Guard soldiers viewed Saddam with hatred and contempt. “We would say, ‘Our leader is mad, mad, mad. And he wants to cut all our throats’.”
“We knew we would never fight. I thought the war would never start because it was madness.” Col Said described the cynicism of sycophantic Republican Guard generals who assured Saddam of victory during televised meetings.
“They told him we would fight any power in the world. When we heard this, we couldn’t believe it. But then the generals told us: ‘No, no — don’t worry. Just keep quiet. Stay in your positions. It won’t happen’.” On March 19, only hours before the Americans launched the first cruise missile strikes, Col Said’s unit was deployed to guard a bridge north of Baghdad. But that day, before a shot had been fired, the security officer charged with ensuring the unit’s loyalty to Saddam deserted — and the way was open for more to quit.
Col Said watched as his men deserted in groups of five or six every day. After heavy coalition bombing raids, the rate of desertions accelerated.
Col Said said he wanted to save the lives of his teenage soldiers, and had no objection to their leaving.
“A soldier would say to me: ‘Sir, excuse me, but I cannot stay here because of the bombing. I fear for my family. I’m sorry, sir.’ I would say: ‘Don’t worry. God go with you. I will be joining you soon’.”
On April 5, Col Said was ordered to withdraw into Baghdad and guard a strategic site. By this time, only five of his soldiers were still with him. The others had fled, along with his commanding officer, Gen Mahmoud al-Ani. Without orders, and threatened by US tanks, Col Said and his remaining soldiers discarded their uniforms and went home last Tuesday. None had fired a shot in defence of Baghdad. None had died in combat.