Courage, despair, incompetence: The defeated look back on their war

Saturday, May 31st 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- In the fourth day of war, the American bombs and shells slammed into their lines with such fury that some of Maj. Hikmat Khalaf's young soldiers wept from fear and hid. There at Nasiriyah he knew. "We were finished."

After a week of war, Col. Yassin Tahir pulled his dwindling battalion -- 35 men -- back to a command post near Amarah. In the morning light, he found it empty. The corps headquarters had fled. Why, he asked himself, should my soldiers now die?

In the final days of war, Abdul-Wahhab Abdul-Zahra watched as Baath Party loyalists took a last stand, doomed, in the fire and smoke of Baghdad, Kalashnikov rifles against Abrams tanks. The war-hardened colonel, a teacher of infantry, knew how to fight tanks. But why? "We wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein. We gave up fighting."

Weeks have passed since the big guns fell silent around Baghdad, and the three Iraqi army officers, close friends and neighbors, now sit at home, out of uniform, in the maze of narrow streets that forms north Baghdad's vast Shiite Muslim ghetto -- a place of flies, heat, the stench of raw sewage -- and wait, with millions of other Iraqis, for their future to unfold.

Before memories begin to fade, however, these three veterans also shared the recent past with an American journalist, offering a look behind the disintegration of a 400,000-man military, with accounts of courage, despair and incompetence, told with hope for better days to come, and wounded pride.

"If Saddam had left, and left Iraq to us, the Americans would have had to fight us for 10 years," Abdul-Zahra said.

Now Saddam is gone, and these proud professionals feel free, finally, to mock their tyrant.

"Before the war he appeared on TV with some staff officers," recalled the tall, rawboned Abdul-Zahra, most recently an instructor at the Baghdad military academy, Iraq's West Point. "He asked them: `Are you prepared for war? Have you finished with the toilet arrangements for the troops?"'

The colonel and his friends laughed. Every officer knew Saddam's army was unprepared, with obsolete equipment, few spare parts, inadequate training. "Toilets," Abdul-Zahra said. "Can you imagine asking us, professionals, such a question?"

Such Saddam sessions with military men -- a president with no military background lecturing top soldiers on how to fight a war -- became a fixture on Iraqi television in the weeks before the U.S.-British invasion. One February night, Tahir, commander of a mechanized infantry battalion, was ordered to appear as one of the dutiful extras.

"The army headquarters summoned me," said the colonel, a talkative, animated man. "First I was searched. Then I was put in one car with blacked-out windows, and then another. They didn't want me to know where I was going. When I got there I was searched again, and they took everything from me, even my wristwatch, and gave me a small notebook and pencil."

In unison around a conference table, under the TV lights in a secret location, Tahir and the other officers obediently jotted down notes as Saddam spoke. But Tahir doesn't have his notes, and he can't remember a word of what the "Father of Iraq" said that night.

Tahir rejoined his battalion outside Amarah, on a ridge overlooking the Tigris River in southeastern Iraq, where he was made "miserable" by a badgering sergeant who was the unit's Baath Party representative. "I, a colonel, sometimes got orders from him."

Then, at dawn on March 20, American cruise missiles struck, zeroing in on the Iraqi IV Corps headquarters at Amarah, where Tahir afterward found eight soldiers' bodies laid outside the ruins. "They were so mutilated, you couldn't tell which was the major general," he recalled.

Tahir knew the face of war. He and Abdul-Zahra, both now 40, grew up 20 yards from each other in the overcrowded homes their extended families still inhabit, graduated from the military academy together in 1985, and went off as fresh lieutenants to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

That grinding, wasteful conflict haunts them. "In one battle, at Penjawin, I lost 70 men, more than half my company," Abdul-Zahra said.

In that war, too, they learned that as Shiite Muslims, a suppressed majority in Iraq, they would draw combat duty while Sunnis, favored by the Baath leadership, were more likely to stay in the rear.

That was true as well in 2003, when the U.S.-British attack first hit overwhelmingly Shiite units, including the 11th Division of their younger friend, Khalaf, 37, whose artillery battalion was dug in on the date-palm flatlands at Nasiriyah, a city of mud-brick homes and a half-million people in Iraq's far south.

"Overnight on the 20th-21st of March, the American planes hit our 3rd Battery hard," said the stocky, bearded Khalaf, whose booming voice might even carry over a cannon's thunder. By Sunday, March 23, the pounding was worse. Khalaf and other officers braved the attacks from outside their bunkers, to give their unnerved men courage.

By then, too, Iraqi irregulars were firing on U.S. aircraft and advancing Marines from within the city's residential blocks. The American pilots and artillery answered with "great violence," Khalaf said. "A lot of innocent people were killed."

The bodies, in blockaded Nasiriyah, were collected outside four Muslim shrines, holy men's tombs. "For 13 days the courtyards were filled with the dead, Iraqi soldiers and even children, innocent people," Khalaf recalled -- 600 or more, he estimated.

In his fitful efforts to sleep, the artillery major's mind raced back repeatedly, worriedly, to Baghdad, to his own wife and two small children.

By Sunday, the Marines were moving through the area in force. Khalaf and his men left their guns, shed their uniforms and vanished into the teeming city. Then in early April, his war over, Khalaf trekked 40 miles north to a relative's village.

Along the way he saw fresh graves -- many soldiers, but also many civilians. "It was indiscriminate. The Americans even hit civilian cars. I don't blame them really," Khalaf said. "The entire Iraqi army was changing into civilian clothes."

Off to the east, outside Amarah, the Americans' low-flying A-10 Thunderbolts were more selective, targeting ammunition dumps and other strategic sites. "They didn't hit even one of our MTLBs," Tahir said of his battalion's old, Soviet-made personnel carriers. "They were junk, not worth a missile."

In fact, the low-slung armored vehicles were taking themselves out of action, breaking down one by one as the battalion shifted positions. Tahir's 350-man battalion, though not under U.S. ground attack, also was taking itself out of action, its men deserting in droves in the night.

The colonel recalled bravery, too -- of the soldier, for example, who fired away at attacking A-10s with a big 57 mm gun by himself, with no gun crew.

But defense was futile. Around April 5, Tahir returned to base with a 35-man patrol and found the remnants of his battalion gone, along with the IV Corps command staff.

"I knew the enemy would win," he said. "I asked myself, `Why should any soldier lose his life when the battle is already decided?"'

Keeping a single junior officer with him, Tahir sent his men in to Amarah, his ancestral town, to be sheltered by a relative. "I took care of my soldiers." Soon he followed.

By now the Americans were hammering at the gates of Baghdad, where Saddam had put his son Qusay -- untrained, like his father, in warfighting -- in charge of the defense.

"That was the big mistake. The army commanders had no faith in Qusay," Abdul-Zahra said.

The academy instructor was drafted to advise the capital's defenders, a motley collection of party faithful, Saddam Fedayeen militia and presidential palace guards. The colonel saw them cut down by U.S. tanks at Umm al-Tibul Square. Baghdad was the Americans' for the taking.

"These were people without combat experience," Abdul-Zahra said. "Their morale collapsed."

The man with combat experience, meantime, had made up his mind. "In the Iran-Iraq war, millions died while Saddam remained. If this war went on, how many more would have died? I reached a conclusion: Either I'll live or Saddam Hussein will live." Col. Abdul-Wahhab Abdul-Zahra went home.

Now, in the stifling heat of his dingy whitewashed sitting room, over sweet tea, these soldiers and friends looked back on their latest war with the humbled pride of defeated officers, the relief of Iraqi Shiites rid of a despot, the joy of men restored to their families.

"We were all happy to see the nightmare end," Khalaf said of Saddam's iron rule. And yet, the Iraqi gunner said, his men should be proud. "They fought for four days. That took courage."

Abdul-Zahra wanted to make one thing clear. "The U.S. Army is certainly the best in the world. But it's not because of the fighting men, but because of their equipment. If we had a fraction of their equipment ... ."

In the end, he said, Iraqis bowed to the "lesser of two evils": defeat and American occupation.

Abdul-Zahra knew the greater evil well. His brother Saadoun, an army officer six years his elder, was seized by the secret police in 1993, accused of plotting against Saddam. He was never heard from again. "They didn't even send us his body," Abdul-Zahra said.

In their silenced, fearful ranks, many in Iraq's army long harbored one overriding, unspoken goal.

"We wanted to see Saddam fall at any cost," Abdul-Zahra said. "And we believed no one could overthrow this man, except for God and the United States."