Loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam
Saddam Hussein's army deliberately did not put up much of a fight, because the military had no faith in his latest war. Two Iraqi soldiers who deserted at the battle of Baghdad share their story.
Loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam
"I gave 20 years of my life. In any other country, I would have been promoted to officer years ago." The 35-year-old sergeant of the Iraqi Republican Guard is bitter about the way he was treated by the former regime. While he is glad Saddam Hussein was beaten, he can still hardly believe it. "Every day when I wake up I have to tell myself it is true, he is really gone."
Ossama served with the Jumhuriya division of the Republican Guard, and was meant to take part in the battle of Baghdad. In a sunny garden in Basra he appears very eager to talk about the battle, and about all those things from the past that he could not talk about -- not even to his wife.
Some of his stories are difficult to verify, but even so they give a chilling impression of army life in Iraq and the types of stories told to soldiers to keep them from deserting. For instance, he conveyed a story about the generals Saddam Hussein had executed. "Everybody in the army knew, Saddam had ordered 11 generals to use nuclear weapons against the Americans. The generals refused. They knew that the Americans would be extra tough on us if such weapons were used. All 11 were executed."
Then he asks: "Do you know what the red line around Baghdad really was?" With a piece of paper on the garden table he draws the strategy of the Iraqi army for the battle of the capital. Inside the red circle, Saddam's most trusted military, the Special Republican Guard were set to crush the American troops while divisions of the Republican Guard attacked from the outside. No chemical weapons, as the Americans feared, would be used after they crossed the red line -- although Ossama is sure those weapons will eventually be found. The famous "red line" was just a tactic to trap the enemy between divisions, but this failed completely. It was partly due to the American bombing of Iraqi troops, but even more so as a result of massive desertion, Ossama says.
He himself decided, a few days before the actual battle of Baghdad started, to leave his division at Dijala. "My commander was furious because we had lost so many people. He was really at our backs. I had to shoot him to be able to run," he confesses. He smiles a writhe little smile, but shows no real remorse for his deed. "I was always loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam Hussein."
He walked hundreds of kilometres through his war-torn country to his home town of Nasseriya, knocking on doors for food and cover along the way.
Twenty-year-old soldier Hussein Jaffer Hassan from the 10th division of the regular Iraqi army took two comrades with him when he deserted. They took off their uniforms because they feared they would be shot for desertion at check points. They walked for two days from Amara to his home village. "From the 500 men in my division only 10 were left," he says. His family surrounds him on the floor of the family room in their house in Khalad-Sucar, a small village between Al-Kut and Nasseriya. They laugh loudly at the absurdities of his story. "Why I left? Because the cockroaches were biting," he jokes -- sobering: "No, simply, I did not want to die."
He drove a tank and was responsible for keeping in contact with central command. "But every time I opened the line, I found the American planes within minutes at me with their bombs. So in the end I only opened communication and immediately jumped out of the tank," he tells his roaring family members.
Hassan recollects the badly serviced tanks that usually did not work, with guns that were totally inaccurate and grenades that did not explode. He talks about the gas masks they were given because the Americans would use chemical weapons, but the masks were poorly made and leaking. And then he recounts the way Iraqi civilians treated him, as a soldier of Saddam Hussein. They hated Saddam and the army fighting for him. "When we would enter a village, we would be more scared of the villagers than of the Americans. They would steal every little thing they could from our tanks and trucks."
Hassan remembers the bad food he was given, which the Iraqis had been forced to donate to the army: old bread -- sometimes too tough to break, and sometimes even with fragments of glass inside.
In Nasseriya, former sergeant Ossama shows the trucks which were used to take the food to the military. All have been burned and looted. "These trucks were transporting the food Saddam demanded from the people -- who hardly had anything to eat themselves. How can you love someone like that?" he adds, referring to the propaganda in the past, which pictured Saddam Hussein as the father of the country -- Baba Saddam, whom everybody loved.
Hassan says that soldiers had already decided many would desert as soon as they encountered their first American missile. This is in line with Ossama's conviction that the military had no faith in Saddam's war. "We did not even have one per cent hope we would win. And we did not believe in what we were fighting for. We had seen the chaos after the war against Iran. The families of our victims hardly got any help then. Perhaps we did have good enough weapons, but they were no use without the input of the soldiers."
Ossama says only the Fedayyin militia of Saddam's eldest son Uday were putting up a real fight. But they were mostly orphans from the Iran-Iraq War, raised in special training camps, and released criminals, who were fed on pills and changed into fighting machines, he says.
The former sergeant then turns to reports about tanks and weapons being hidden in civilian areas. These reports are accurate, he says. "Saddam put the radar in between the houses. He wanted the Iraqi civilians to complain about the American aggression against them, when the Americans tried to knock out the radar. But we all knew very well what he was doing."
In many places in Iraq the burned out tanks can still be seen in civilian areas, some even in very narrow streets between houses or shops. According to Ossama, Saddam had stored weapons in a school in Nasseriya, which were only recently taken away by the Americans after he informed them about it.
He also says rockets were transported in big lorries with the words 'Ministry of Trade' on the side. "That is why the market in Baghdad was attacked, in April, with dozens of dead civilians. The lorry with the rocket had just been moved." He is also sure the rockets that hit Kuwait were hidden from the coalition forces by driving them around in the same manner.
After the last Gulf War, Saddam Hussein created a new military force, because he did not trust the Republican Guards anymore. Members of the Special Republican Guard were taken from Saddam's birthplace Tikrit and his own tribe. Ossama's account suggests the Iraqi president was right not to trust the Guard any more. The sergeant of the Guard even confessed to some sabotage activities, in which he and some comrades replaced bullets in the guns with sand, as well as smuggling guns to civilians.
Just like many Iraqis, the soldiers were fed up with Saddam's regime and his wars. His youngest son Qusai, who lead the army with force and without proper military education, was not well respected. After the invasion of Kuwait and the international sanctions that followed, everybody wanted to be rid of the father, and the son, says Ossama. "We were waiting for the war to start since February. Everybody wanted him gone, even in Tikrit." He is also absolutely sure -- he has no doubt -- that "the Iraqi military let Saddam down deliberately."
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