In wake of "Desert Fox", Saddam moves to tighten his grip  

By Sean Boyne  

Even before the first wave of December's Operation 'Desert Fox' had struck home,
Saddam Hussein was pre-empting any degradation of his control with a reorganisation of Iraq's military command structure. Only those whose loyalty cannot be questioned now control the country's armed forces, with any hint of betrayal meeting a swift response.
Sean Boyne analyses the Iraqi leader's latest moves.

As Iraq absorbed the opening salvoes of the 'Desert Fox' campaign on
16 December, Saddam Hussein was moving quickly to divide the country
into four military commands, each under the control of a trusted member
of his inner circle. The move, announced on the eve of 'Desert Fox', was
seen not as part of a counter-offensive against a looming US-British
assault but as an effort by the Iraqi president to prevent any civil
uprising against his rule in the event of an allied onslaught seriously
undermining his authority. It was further seen as an effort to exercise
even tighter control over the armed forces, so as to head off any
attempt at a military coup or insurrection.

The creation of a new echelon in the command and control structure,
with each new regional command controlled by an ultra-loyal senior
figure in the Ba'ath Party, underlined the president's paranoia about
threats to his regime both among the populace and the armed forces.
According to dissident sources, one of the new commanders immediately
moved to assert his authority by ruthlessly executing senior army
officers suspected of disloyalty.

The formation of the new commands suggests that Saddam anticipated
that one of the unstated aims of the Anglo-US assault would be to
foment a heave against him within the military. Opposition sources have
always claimed there are dissident elements within the Iraqi Army that
are prepared to rise up when the time is right. As if to fan the flames of
such unrest, the Anglo-US forces largely spared the regular army during
the 'Desert Fox' offensive - although some facilities did come under
attack - and instead pressed home the assault on those élite elements
whose role is to protect the regime, such as the Republican Guard (RG,
Special Republican Guard (SRG) and also the intelligence and security
services. Leaflets were dropped in southern Iraq assuring the Iraqi Army
that only those forces supporting the regime were being targeted - a
clear attempt to drive a wedge between the regular military and the
better-paid and better-equipped RG and SRG. The Iraqi dictator's
paranoia may have been further heightened by Washington's shift in
policy towards his regime: the emphasis had been on containing him;
now it is on ousting him. The policy change was given the formal weight
of law when, on 31 October last year, President Clinton signed the Iraq
Liberation Act, which authorises US military supplies up to a value of
US$97 million to the 'democratic opposition' seeking to oust the Baghdad
regime.

Regenerating the regime

There had been indications for quite some time that Saddam planned to
set up a new command structure for the armed forces so as to tighten
his control over them, especially the regular army. Saddam's son Qusay,
who heads the regime's security apparatus, is believed to have played a
role in recent years in drawing up plans for a new structure (see JIR,
September 1997). The threat posed by the 'Desert Fox' campaign seems
to have been the catalyst that led to the new structures being hurriedly
put in place. The appointment of senior Ba'ath Party figures to take
charge of the four regional commands indicates that Saddam no longer
trusts his regular army commanders and feels under increasing threat.
According to presidential directives, the duties of the regional
commanders are to defend within the boundaries of their geographical
area; to confront any foreign aggressors that threaten Iraq's
sovereignty, independence and security; and to preserve internal
security.

Significantly, the directives also lay down that the four regional
commanders will only receive instructions from Saddam himself via the
Special Security Organisation (SSO): the élite security agency headed
by Qusay which also came under attack during 'Desert Fox'. Thus, in
what appears almost like a panic measure, Saddam is tightening his
personal grip on all elements of the armed forces, ensuring that they do
not move or take action without his personal approval. The directives
lay down that Saddam retains direct control of all air force, air defence
and army aviation units. In effect, Saddam is using his personal security
force, the SSO, to oversee even the trusted aides he has appointed to
the four military commands. This is typical of Saddam's approach to
security; in his paranoid world, even the watchers are watched. With
his personal control of the air force, Saddam is ensuring that even if
elements in the armed forces mutiny and the tanks roll on Baghdad, he
retains the means to strike at his enemies from the air.

The 'hatchet man'

Reports filtering out of Iraq via dissident sources indicate that at least
one regional commander - Saddam's feared 'hatchet man', Ali Hasan
Al-Majid - moved quickly to consolidate his power in his new post as
commander of the Southern Region by setting up a special co-ordination
committee. The group was said to comprise representatives of all the
armed forces in his region, including the regular army, the RG, the SRG,
the paramilitary force Fedayeen Saddam (whose members were fully
mobilised for internal security duties during 'Desert Fox' along with armed
members of the Ba'ath Party) and governorate emergency forces, as
well as representatives of the security/intelligence agencies, senior
governorate officials and senior representatives of the Ba'ath Party. It is
likely that the other commanders have taken similar measures.

According to Dr Hamid Al-Bayati of the Iranian-backed Iraqi opposition
group the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI),
Al-Majid quickly demonstrated his ruthlessness. At a meeting of the
above committee in December to discuss a series of measures aimed at
repressing any popular movement against the regime, Al-Majid had a
confrontation with the commander of the Iraqi Army's 11th Division, part
of the 3rd Corps. The commander opposed the proposed measures,
insisting that it was the role of the army to defend the country against
foreign aggression, not to confront the people. According to Dr
Al-Bayati, Al-Majid had the officer summarily executed at Amara. He
then blamed a senior officer in Military Intelligence (MI) for neglecting
the opposition in the 11th Division. The MI officer swiftly arrested a
number of staff officers and others in the division and, according to Dr
Al-Bayati, they also were summarily executed.

The appointment of Al-Majid, a former defence minister, as one of the
four new regional commanders would appear to underline Saddam's
concerns over the threat against him. Al-Majid has a notorious record
for the brutal suppression of dissent. His new posting is seen as yet
another sign that Saddam is once again worried about disloyalty among
the people and armed forces - especially in the south, which has a long
history of Shia dissidence. Al-Majid is an experienced intelligence man
who knows how to root out those suspected of disloyalty. He headed
the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS), or Mukhabarat, for several years up
to 1987 and went on to become an intelligence supremo, overseeing
several agencies (a role now conducted by Qusay).

Al-Majid is a cousin of Saddam and a member of Iraq's Revolutionary
Command Council (RCC). He and Saddam are close, long-time
associates. In the 1960s Al-Majid was a member of Saddam's ruthless
clandestine Ba'ath Party intelligence organisation, Jihaz Haneen, which
ultimately helped Saddam to grab power. In the late 1980s Al-Majid was
in charge of the bloody 'Anfal' suppression of the Kurds: a campaign
that included the ill-famed chemical weapon attack on Halabja, which
killed thousands (he is known with bitterness among the Kurds as
'Chemical Ali'). As is the case with his recent appointment in the south,
at the time of the 'Anfal' reign of terror he was given full control of all
the military and security forces in northern Iraq. He was also given the
key post of governor of Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. Subsequently,
as interior minister, Al-Majid played an important role in suppressing the
insurrection by Kurds and Shias in 1991 following Operation 'Desert
Storm'. In recent months, according to opposition sources, he has
spearheaded a campaign in the south against army deserters. He is thus
well-equipped in his latest post to crush dissent in the region.

Regulars stay put

The four regional commanders are taking over an Iraqi Army whose
deployment has remained much the same as before 'Desert Fox',
although units of the RG were reportedly shifted to beef up security
around Baghdad and in the restive Shia areas in the south shortly before
the allied offensive. By dispersing RG units away from their barracks, the
regime was also obviously hoping to protect them from air attacks on RG
bases. Opposition sources talked of forces being dispersed along the
main road between Baghdad and Basra to avoid the heavy air strikes.
Following the allied offensive, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz
claimed the attacks had very little effect on Iraq's military, killing just 62
'martyrs' in the armed forces and only 38 from RG units. The US Central
Command commander, General Anthony Zinni, confirmed that RG units
had abandoned their barracks and headquarters before the strikes
began, presumably tipped off that an attack was imminent when the
UNSCOM weapons inspectors withdrew. In January, however, General
Zinni said there were unconfirmed reports that up to 2,000 members of
the RG may have been killed. (Some observers believe that one of the
unstated aims of the offensive was to kill thousands of RG soldiers in
their beds.) Regardless of the level of casualties, there is no doubt that
considerable damage has been inflicted on the facilities of lite units
and the security apparatus; as a result the four new commanders will be
all the more eager to ensure the regular army remains under tight
control.

The Iraqi Army has five corps, comprising 17 divisions, deployed as
follows:

Southern Iraq. The 3rd Corps (HQ in Nasseria area) guards the border
with Kuwait and 4th Corps (HQ at Amara) guards the border with Iran.
These units also have the role of protecting regional oil fields from Shia
dissidents.

Northern Iraq. The 1st Corps (HQ at Kirkuk) and the 5th Corps (HQ at
Mosul) have the role of guarding the border with Turkey, the fringes of
the Kurdish enclave, and protecting the oil fields of the region against
hostile Kurdish forces. Units of the 5th Corps are also in a position to
focus on the frontier with Syria.

Eastern Iraq. The 2nd Corps (HQ at Deyala) is deployed to the east of
Baghdad, to repel any hostile incursion from across the Iranian border,
aimed either at Baghdad or against dissident Iranian forces based in
Iraq.

The élite RG, consisting of seven divisions organised into two corps
(Northern and Southern) has been deployed in a 'watchdog' role to
ensure regular army commanders do not get out of line and also as a
'screen' between the army and Baghdad to deflect any mutinous
advance on Saddam's centre of power. The RG has also been deployed
as a deterrent force in or near areas of dissent, like in the Shia south
and the Kurdish north. While the RG has been stationed on the outskirts
of Baghdad, in the centre of the capital itself the SRG, Saddam's
'Praetorian Guard', holds sway, acting as the last line of defence for the
regime. (The SRG HQ in Baghdad came under heavy attack during the
allied offensive.)

It is thought that one effect of Operation 'Desert Fox' was to weaken
the 'watchdog' role of the RG vis--vis the regular army - at least in the
short term. Dissident Iraqi sources say that RG forces were withdrawn
from Mosul to Baghdad so as to be poised to tackle any Shia
insurrection in the south. This suggests that Saddam feared that 'Desert
Fox' could have provide the Shias with the encouragement to try a
re-run of the 1991 rebellion. One of the side-effects was that the 1st
and 5th Corps of the army were left with greatly diminished RG
'supervision'. It has also been reported that elements of another RG
division were moved from the area of the army's 2nd Corps to south of
Baghdad, leaving the 2nd Corps also with diminished RG oversight. In
theory at least, and assuming the reports were accurate, this should
have left the 1st, 2nd and 5th Corps with a window of opportunity for
dissident senior officers to act against the regime. Not only had RG units
been apparently moved away from their 'supervisory' role, but their
bases had come under sustained attack from Anglo-US air strikes, their
military effectiveness had been diminished and their communications
infrastructure had been greatly disrupted. (Among the RG targets
severely damaged during the allied strikes were bases of RG units that
form a screen around Baghdad, including: the HQ of the Medina division
based at Taji, 20km north of Baghdad; the HQ of RG Southern Corps at
Alsuwaira, west of Baghdad; and the main base of the RG Northern
Corps at Rashidiya. In northern Iraq, the bases of RG units facing the
restive Kurdish area were attacked, including facilities of the Adnan and
Medina divisions in the Mosul area.) If there were senior regular army
commanders waiting for a suitable chance to stage a major mutiny, they
obviously judged that the brief window of opportunity that opened up
during 'Desert Fox' was insufficient to ensure success. In the days
following 'Desert Fox', reports emanating from Iraq via dissident sources
indicated that there were only a few small-scale attempts at rebellion
during the Anglo-US offensive, which were quickly crushed. SCIRI's Dr
Al-Bayati reported that at dawn on Thursday 17 December, armed men
engaged in a three-hour gun battle with Iraqi security forces at the
radio and TV station in the Salihiya area of Baghdad. Dr Al-Bayati also
reported that on the morning of the next day there was a mutiny at the
sprawling Al Rashid military camp in the Baghdad area which was
suppressed by special forces, resulting in the execution of five officers,
including Staff General Hardan Jasim Al Ubaidi and Infantry General
Hussain Mohammed Hasan (Al Rashid accommodates the HQ of the SRG's
2nd Brigade and is also an important air base; it came under heavy
attack during 'Desert Fox'). In addition, reports emerged of armed
clashes around the Hibibah and Thawrah districts southeast of Baghdad
as the SRG put down public disturbances. There were further reports of
Iraqi special security forces coming under attack from armed civilians in
southern Iraq, where power plants were also sabotaged. However, one
can assume that in the days following the end of the 'Desert Fox'
offensive, the regime was moving to close down any windows of
opportunity that might have been opened - even slightly - for those in
the military who wanted to see an end to Saddam's rule.

The new commands :

The four new military commands, by which Saddam hopes to exercise
even tighter personal control of the armed forces, are as follows:

The Southern Region. This covers the governorates of Basra, Dhikar,
Misan and Waset and is commanded by Staff General Ali Hasan Al-Majid.
With his extensive intelligence / security background, Al-Majid will be all
too conscious of the potential for Shia rebellion in this region - and the
damage that can be caused to the regime by an uprising. Basra is of
considerable military and economic significance and was one of the main
centres of the 1991 insurrection which, as interior minister at the time,
Al-Majid helped to suppress with much ferocity. Al-Majid now has
control of sensitive areas bordering Kuwait and Iran and of the regular
army's 3rd and 4th Corps. He also has control of Iraq's small navy, which
has never been a significant force and which suffered heavy damage
during the 1990-91 Gulf War. The navy operates from bases at Zubayr,
Basra and Umm Quasr commercial dock.

The Northern Region. This comprises the three Kurdish governorates of
Sulaimaniya, Arbil and Dohuk and the northern governorate of Mosul.
With Izzat Ibrahim, vice-chairman of the RCC, appointed the region's
commander, Saddam has once again appointed a long-time, trusted aide
to take control of military and security forces in the highly sensitive
north - long a hotbed of Kurdish dissidence and a centre of the oil
industry. Part of the Kurdish region still remains outside the control of
Baghdad. According to the Iraqi authorities, Ibrahim was the target of
an assassination attempt in the Shia city of Kerbala in November last
year. The regular army's 1st and 5th Corps are stationed in the Northern
Region and are thus now under the aegis of Ibrahim.

The Central Euphrates Region. This consists of the mainly Shia
governorates of Kerbala, Babylon, Najaf, Quadisiya and Muthana. The
region's commander is Mohammed Hamza Al-Zubeidi, a member of the
RCC and Deputy Prime Minister. Al-Zubeidi is also one of Saddam's
long-time loyalists who has also served as minister for transport and
communications. He commands a sensitive region which includes centres
such as Kerbala, where the Shia rebellion of 1991 was savagely put
down. He does not have a military background but is greatly trusted by
Saddam. Elements of the RG are stationed in this region, but no major
elements of the regular army.

The Central Region. This comprises the governorates of Baghdad,
Salahdin, Anbar and Diyala and is commanded by Defence Minister
Ahmed Sultan. As the region includes Baghdad - location of many
sensitive installations - this is an important command. The regular
army's 2nd Corps comes under Ahmed Sultan's control.