Iraq: Will They Fight?

26 December 2002

Iraq: Will They Fight?

By Gwynne Dyer

“If they come, we are ready,” Saddam Hussein told his most recent biographer, Con Coughlin, last September. “We will fight them on the streets, from the rooftops, house to house. We will never surrender.” To anybody who recalls Saddam’s hollow threats about the coming ‘Mother of Battles’ during the Gulf War in 1991, it sounds like empty bravado, but what if the Iraqis (or at least a lot of them) really fight this time?

In theory, the US attack on Iraq could begin only days after the United Nations arms inspectors present their first ‘status report’ to the Security Council on 27 January, but in practice Washington will probably go through the motions of conferring with its allies. It is most unlikely that the Bush administration can be diverted from its resolve to eliminate the Iraqi leader regardless of the inspectors’ findings, but it could be late February or even March before the attack actually gets underway.

It is almost universally believed in Washington that Saddam Hussein’s regime will collapse in a matter of days after a US attack. The advocates of war with Iraq have to believe that, for this is the same capital where the prevailing doctrine on foreign military adventures as recently as two years ago was the ‘Mogadishu line’.

After the Somalia fiasco saw 19 American soldiers killed in one day in Mogadishu in 1993, Washington’s military and foreign policy elite was convinced throughout the later 1990s that American public opinion would revolt against any future US military intervention abroad that cost more than twenty American military deaths unless vital national interests were at stake. And while the shock of the terrorist attacks on America in September, 2001 may have shifted the Mogadishu line a bit, most observers think it is still there.

Every opinion poll tells the same story: most Americans back their president in an attack on Iraq — but they do not believe that Bush has made his case in trying to connect the Iraqi regime with al-Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks, and back Bush anyway because they do not expect large casualties in an attack on Iraq. Surely all those high-tech weapons will deliver a cheap and easy American victory, especially against the same Iraqi army whose resistance collapsed so quickly eleven years ago.

This may prove to be the case, but there is another bit of evidence from the events of eleven years ago that should give Americans pause. Most of the Shia and Kurdish conscripts who made up the bulk of the Iraqi army in Kuwait surrendered quickly or fled, but after the ceasefire, when both the Shia south and the Kurdish north of Iraq erupted in massive revolts, the Sunni Arabs of the central region around Baghdad, about one-fifth of the total population, closed ranks around Saddam Hussein and fought to defend his regime. That is the only reason he survived in 1991.

It’s not that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq love Saddam. They simply know that he is the current embodiment of their community’s control of Iraq, a near-monopoly that has endured ever since the Iraqi state was carved out of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, and that if he goes down, so do they. Sunni Arabic-speakers are only one-fifth of the population of Iraq; if they lose control over the army and the state administration as a result of Saddam’s fall, they will never get it back.

The Kurds of northern Iraq, also about one-fifth of the population,don’t even speak Arabic, and have been seeking a separate country for several generations. The Shia to the south, though Arabic-speakers, have strong cultural connections with Shia Iran and little interest in the pan-Arab nationalism that often moves the Sunni Arabs of central Iraq — and the Shia are three-fifths of the country’s entire population. A democratic Iraq, if such a wonder should come to pass, would be as great a threat to Sunni Arab rule as the disintegration that seems a rather likelier outcome of an American conquest of Iraq.

What really happened in 1991 was that Saddam, realising the impossibility of holding Kuwait, pulled his most reliable troops back into the cities of central Iraq to make a last stand in the Sunni Arab heartland between Baghdad and Tikrit. The US decision to stop after freeing Kuwait was based largely on the assessment that these mostly Sunni Arab troops,and especially the Republican Guards divisions, would fight for Saddam, and that the American casualties involved in a further campaign to dig the Iraqi leader out of his bunker in central Baghdad would be unacceptably high.

This assessment seemed to be confirmed when the Kurds and Shias rebelled after the ceasefire and the Sunni Arabs, rather than seizing the chance to overthrow Saddam, fought to quell the revolts. If US forces do go all the way to Baghdad this time, will the Sunni Arabs fight again to defend Saddam?

If they do, and the US army gets tangled up in street-fighting in the sprawling city of Baghdad, this could rapidly become a very unpopular war in America. Nobody knows if they will, but the fall of Saddam would mean the end of a stranglehold on power by the Sunni Arab minority that has lasted since the creation of Iraq eighty years ago, so they certainly might.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“In heory…underway”;and “It’s not…back”)