March 21, 2003 | WebMemo on Middle East
Saddam is rational, but only
when it is understood that his ultimate goal is holding on to
power, not defending the interests of the Iraqi people. Saddam knew he would lose the 1991
Gulf War, but probably believed that if he backed down and pulled
out of Kuwait with his tail between his legs, he would be
overthrown by his own army. Indeed, there were at least two
reported military coup attempts in the year before he invaded
Saddam learned in the 1991 Gulf War that Iraq had little chance of defeating U.S. military forces in the open desert, because that left Iraqi forces vulnerable to superior American armor and overwhelming air power. This time around, the Iraqis have made little attempt to defend Iraq's borders, but have concentrated their best military units - the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard - in central Iraq close to Baghdad and Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
American and British columns are now cutting through Iraq's soft peripheral defenses like a knife through butter. But as they approach Baghdad, Saddam likely plans to bog them down in urban street fighting. This not only will help neutralize American air power and armor columns, but also will generate greater American casualties. Moreover, such a strategy will generate more Iraqi civilian casualties, because Saddam's diehard troops will be entrenched inside the city amid a hostage civilian population.
Saddam hopes that his last stand will be broadcast live by the international media and will provoke a firestorm of political protest in the Arab world and strong international pressure to halt the U.S. offensive in its tracks. Such a strategy of using human shields helped Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to escape from Beirut after his terrorist forces were encircled and besieged by the Israelis in 1982 during the Israeli intervention in Lebanon. But holding Baghdad hostage cannot save Saddam now, only delay the inevitable.
The Bush Administration initially sought to defeat Saddam's human shield strategy by trying to eliminate the Iraqi dictator in a bold air and cruise missile strike at the outset of the war. This apparently failed and now American and British forces are streaming towards Baghdad for the final showdown with Saddam.
Speed is critical because allied forces need to overwhelm and disarm Iraq's military forces before they recover their balance and regroup for urban street fighting. The faster American forces can converge on Baghdad, the sooner Iraqi morale will collapse, and the faster Saddam's few remaining loyalists will desert his cause.