Iran Iraq War: Presentation at 2017 ASMEA conference

The Iran Iraq War: Lessons Not Learned. By Norvell B DeAtkine, Sept 2017


Jafar Pasha al-Al Askari, known as “the father of the Iraq army,” was very optimistic in 1927 when he penned an article for the Royal Central Asian Society viewing the Iraqi army as steadily improving under the benevolent tutelage of British officers. As he wrote,

“I think that we have made very considerable strides   in the last few years in the formation of that army. Aided by English officers, of whom General Daly is the chief, professional soldiers of Iraq have worked hard to bring an Iraqi army into being. In this, as in other things, we had to work slowly owning to consideration of expense. But we have already made great progress. Our young officers, some of whom have been trained in England, are proving very efficient, and I hear nothing but good of them from all sides.”[1]


Until the short war against the British in 1941 the Iraqi army was known mostly for the Simele massacre of 1933 in which about 6000 Assyrian Christians were killed by Iraqi troops. Their commander, Bakr Sidqi, became a national hero, but like Jafar Pasha, in the political turmoil that has affected Iraq since that time, he too was assassinated. Indeed this brutal campaign against a mostly defenseless small minority was partially a consequence of a notorious article, entitled the “Profession of Death,” [2] written by an Iraqi teacher, Sami Shawkat, Director of Iraqis Ministry of Education. This article became famous throughout the Arab world, equating power to military strength and glorifying violence.

This was amply shown by the rather hapless performance of the Iraqi army, taking the side of the German Axis, against a greatly inferior (in numbers) British force in 1941. The Iraqis suffered from the same cultural factors that have weighed down Arab and Iraqi military forces to the present day, e.g., poor leadership, lack of initiative, and political infighting. Moreover in a typical feature of Iraq, and a sectarian Middle East, powerful Shi’a tribes and the Kurds did not support the Iraqi army, which soon disintegrated and the pro-Axis government dissolved. [3]

In both cases, the war in Palestine and the uprising against the British in 1941, the poor performance of the army resulted in a general state of military irrelevance in the political field, illustrating the close ties between military performance (or public perception thereof) and its importance in the political life of Iraq. Of course, the effectiveness of the state propaganda machine was a large determinant of this factor.  Saddam not only mastered this, but also was also able to promote himself as the dominant factor in military successes, real or mythical, thereby avoiding the usual Arab dictator’s fear of lionizing his army to the point it can replace him.


In a pattern seen throughout the Arab world, once Western training is terminated the Arab military effectiveness quickly dissipates as the strong Arab cultural mores reassert themselves, particularly the politization of the military officer corps. Despite years of British training of indigenous forces in Egypt and in Iraq, (and later Americans in Iraq), the training methods and ethos did not take. [4] In both cases, despite optimistic assessments by their foreign trainers, Egyptian and Iraqi forces rapidly declined in effectiveness.


The ineffectiveness continued as evidenced in the 1948[5] war when the Iraqi army deployed under Jordanian control to attack the Israeli settlement of Gesher. Reportedly defended by only 50 Israeli irregulars, the Iraqis suffered heavy casualties and were unable to overrun the settlement and adjoining fort. As the Iraqi army deployed into the West Bank under their own command, their sluggish command structure, and lack of competent combined arms operational ability inhibited their ability to push the Israelis out of a strategic piece of the West Bank. Some time later moved into the Samaria region, into a key strategic region vital to the overall Arab overall defense of Palestine, but here their performance was again lethargic, and despite pleas from the Arab legion under heavy Israeli attacks, were slow to move and assist the Jordanians. As Edgar O’Balance wrote;[6]

“One can only wonder at the general inaction of such a large body of troops. They merely stepped into positions vacated by Glubb Paha’s troops and Kaukji’s men who were pushed out to make way for them, and they made no attempt to extend their territory.”………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..”It was a case of a golden opportunity lost merely for the lack of an aggressive spirit and energy”

Later, after its disastrous attack on Gesher, the Iraqis deployed under command of the Syrian irregular, Fawzi Al Kaukji, with his militia unit known as the Arab Liberation Army, The Iraqis fought much more effectively.. The Arab generally fights more effectively as an irregular than a conventional soldier, a factor previously analyzed by this author. [7] The Iraqis were also better in fixed defensive positions, in which individual small unit initiative was less critical.

In the readings of the 1948 war, all the historians remark on the tenacity of the Iraqi soldier, and his prowess in individual combat. However, those qualities were obscured by the ineffectiveness of the Iraqi units on offense, and in situations requiring initiative on the part of the commanders. In fact the Palestinians spoke derisively of Iraqis as having standing orders as shako makko (nothing happening). One can ascertain at this early stage of the development of the Iraqi army an undue reliance on the courage of the Iraqi soldier, the mythology of the nomadic Arab warrior sweeping aside decadent civilizations with élan and moral superiority- an attribute applied to the Iraqi soldiers frequently by Saddam Hussein.    But even at this point Jafar Pasha would indeed be disappointed in the rapid decline of the Iraqi army he was so assiduously trying to build.


If the capability of the Iraqi army against conventional armed forces was found lacking so were their capabilities in confronting unconventional foes. This was amply demonstrated in their near continuous wars against the Kurds, the first generally called the first Kurdish war, 1961 to 1970. In this war the Iraqis were slow off the mark, road bound, inflexible, allowed themselves to be frequently ambushed and did not implement any counter insurgency. As always, small unit leadership was poor, and as before the individual Iraqi soldier, was ready to do was whatever was asked of him, but with inadequate training and motivation, paid the price.


The dismal performance of the Iraqi forces in the Kurdish wars [8] is even more remarkable given the fact that the Kurds did not readily adapt to insurgent warfare either, with inadequate weaponry, non – existent training, and usually divided among themselves. The propensity of the Kurds to do the wrong thing at the wrong time resulted in the Kurds trying to fight a conventional war against the Iraqis, with disastrous results, and the Iraqis using a campaign of annihilation against the Kurds in operation Anfal 1986 to 1989.


In the numerous Iraqi wars against the Kurds, the Iraqi air attacks against which the Kurds had no defense, were uncoordinated with ground operations, generally conducted simply as a terror tactic, a deficiency which has continued to the present day, The inability to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations seems in explicable given the availability of profusion of Western and other sources on fighting guerrillas. . They did in fact have those lesson learned available but obviously were not taught or more likely ignored. It was in fact ironic to find among the discarded field manuals of the Iraqi Republican Guard a counter insurgency manual that appeared to be a copy of a Western one, with emphasis on “hearts and minds.”[9]

O’Balance observed;

“Weakened by frequent political; purges over the years, the officer corps was drained of much of its good middle –grade leadership and initiative, so much so that it was a wonder that it was able to mount and sustain the four large military offensives which it did”.[10]

The Iraqi experience in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is very small and yet indicative of the irresolute higher commands of the Iraqi army. The 3rd armored division of the Iraqi army was ordered into Jordan at the beginning of the six-day war, but by the time they reached the Jordan River the war was over. The Iraqi advance units had reached the hills above the Ghor valley but were wiped out by Israeli airpower in a couple of days. There did not seem to be any plan as to what they were to do when and if they crossed the river. In 1970 when I was in Jordan the wreckage of Iraqi vehicles and tanks were still sitting on the hills.[11]

The 1973 war was an excellent preview of things to come in the Iraqi war- making methods and the issues associated with them. Iraqi soldier’s eagerness for battle, ardor to close with the enemy, bravery, and determination were all in abundance in this war…and as before negated by mostly indifferent command structure, higher echelon command indecision, total lack of combined arms, and politically a lack communication with other Arab army elements. In the opinion of the Jordanian commanders and Israeli historians they were not up to the level of the Syrians in combat proficiency. In a briefing given to a US military fact- finding mission, the commander of the Jordanian 40th Armored Brigade described them as a menace to their Arab allies by wild shooting, lack of coherent leadership, and unpredictability. The Jordanians were unable to communicate with them.[12]

The Iraqis had entered into battle directly from an 800 mile march, mostly on tank transporters, which was a feat in itself, launched a night attack, something very uncommon among Arab armies, and their commando battalion infiltrated Israeli lines. Probably by accident their surprise arrival on the battlefield saved Damascus from being invested by Israeli troops. However, the commanders frittered away these positive developments with confused, disorganized, and desultory attacks. The artillery support was ineffective and attacks were continued even when it was obvious that they were being wiped out in an armored trap. The Iraqi 3rd Armored division, their best at the time, was essentially rendered inoperative.


The forgoing is prologue to the Iraqi conduct of the war against the Iranians in 1980, one of the bloodiest of all the many Middle Eastern wars by far. In one fashion or another the Iraqis had been at war among themselves or neighbors since World War II, yet during most of their war, particularly the first few years, against an unprepared and ill trained Iranian army, the Iraqi military performance was conducted in a mediocre and often inept manner. Iraqi generals tended to blame Saddam Hussein for the failures in the war just as the German generals blamed Hitler.


The question a military historian would ask, given the near continuous environment of war and a militarized society, why has the Iraqi learning curve has been so slow and agonizing? Partly of course the answer is found in the Arab proclivity to avoid the whole process of lessons learned, a process by which commanders may be found wanting and thus kept from public scrutiny.[13] Therefore hard learned lessons are not passed on. A second reason is the Arab cultural trait of obsessive secrecy in which any hint of a shortcoming is swept under the rug aggravated by the perceived belief in the omnipresence of spies. Thirdly, the lack of institutionalized military studies, caused by many military coups, in which the Iraqi military has been the instrument of political change and a resulting removal of layers of officers, especially those charismatic, and admired by their troops.


But even had the lessons learned been earnestly conducted and more transparent, the near impenetrable power of Arab Islamic culture would have rendered much of the lessons learned of lesser significance. When analyzing the Iran – Iraq war it becomes apparent that while there were a number of Iraqi victories and successes they were bought at an inhumanely high cost in their soldiers lives as the officers and commanders acquired some degree of proficiency with “on the job training.”


The Iran –Iraq war[14] was a war of massive miscalculation based on prejudices, wishful thinking, and cultural ignorance. Provoked by Iranian repeated provocations, and some colossal illusions Saddam Hussein launched an attack on September 22, 1980 in the belief that Khuzestan Arabs of Iran would rally to the Iraqi Arab cause. He also believed that the massive purge of the Iranian armed forces by the revolutionary regime of Ayatollah Khomeini had destroyed the Iranian means of resistance. By December 1980, the Iraqi army had been put on the defensive and the Iranians were on the offensive, however they made the same miscalculation as the Iraqis. They assumed that the Iraqi Shi’a who are generally described as making up 80 % of the Iraqi enlisted soldiers would rally to the Iranian cause. With some exceptions they did not.


In the second phase of the war the Iranians waged a war of attrition premised on the belief that Iran could sustain the human and economic losses more than Iraq. In the latter phase of the war, Iran launched massive offensives countered by decisive Iraqi counter-offensives. With a huge advantage in weaponry, especially armor and artillery, the Iraqis finally brought the Iranians to accept a truce that remains until today.


Historical Prejudices

The “outsider” in Arab culture is often only a person of a few villages away. The historical enmity between Arab and Persian was effectively reinforced by the Saddam regime. For instance the father in law of Saddam Hussein wrote an infamous saying about Persians that became part of Iraqi children’s course of instruction, “Three Whom God should not have created: Persians, Jews, and flies.” A book purporting to depict the Iranian national character, “The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan,[15] recommended to me by Iraqis is a very readable book, depicting Iranians as highly intelligent but duplicitous, untrustworthy and venal. In fact the Iraqi view of Persians assiduously emphasized by the Ba’ath regime is very often the gut feeling Sunni Iraqi Arabs feel about their Shi’a compatriots, referring to them as Majus, a derogatory word depicting the Shi’a as Persian fire worshipers (Zoroastrians) and not real Muslims. The point is that not only did the Saddam regime miscalculate Iranian Arab support for Iraq but also the impact of the Iranian revolution on their military effectiveness.

It was the bloodiest war of modern history with 125,000 Iraqi military dead, and 380,000 Iranian. The Iraqis incurred a financial loss of 452 billion (1985 data) and the Iranians 645 billion. Iraqi financial losses were a primary reason for the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, hoping to replenish their coffers with Kuwaiti wealth.[16]

As the curtain opened on the Iran-Iraq war the Iraqi army was totally politicized, a condition brought about by Saddam Hussein’s pathological fear and hatred of the officer corps.   Having had no experience as a military man he felt insecure around professional military officers, and immediately upon taking power, began a process of elimination of those he considered a threat. He replaced them with political cronies. Many promoted to flag rank were former bodyguards. Four promoted to four-star rank were completely without any military experience. [17] General Nizar al Khazraji, described one of Saddam’s favorites, Ali Hasan al Majid, as follows.

“Illiterate…arrogant and violent. He suffers from diabetes and is always shouting at his soldiers and officers, Financially he is corrupt,. They call him the “thief of Baghdad”……He was an assistant corporal in the air force. The best military position he occupied was that of driver of a fuel tanker, which supplies fuel to aircraft. Now he is a (four star).”[18]

 Problems in Unit leadership

 There is no greater factor more important to the effectiveness of any army than the capabilities of the Non Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO). Both the British model and American greatly emphasize the role of the NCO in training and combat. As is often written, he is the “backbone “of the unit. It is in this consideration that the Iraqi army suffered greatly. Major General Aladdin Hussein Makki Khamas   told the Institute of Defense Analysts questioners that having gotten a good start under the British system the NCO corps deteriorated to a very low level and were not dependable. Like most Arab armies the Iraqis depended totally on the officers, and as a result the junior officer corps suffered a very high loss rate, especially in the early stages of the war. He told Kevin Woods, the questioner that, “if you wanted something not achieved give it to an NCO.”[20] A basic problem when there is no NCO bridge the gap between the officer and his men increases. General Ra’ad Hamdani described the lack of understanding of Iraqi soldiers by many of the ranking Iraqi generals. Finding soldiers incarcerated unjustly he would remonstrate to the officer in charge, “it is your mistake, he is not an animal.” [21] The near caste system of Arab social life aggravates this situation. Unless forced to in an intense combat situation, the Iraqi officer keeps his distance from the men. When the officer is not present the training generally becomes disorganized and very often he was not present or acting more as an observer than trainer.. This was certainly evident in the state of the Iraqi army entering into the conflict with the Iranians.

There were three other factors, which adversely affected the officer corps itself and greatly lowered their competence collectively. The first was and continues to be the wholesale turnover in the officer corps based on political orientation. This problem has a long history in Iraq. From the time of World War II, the regimes basically re- structured the officer corps with each (usually violent) regime change since the coups were usually a function of the military involvement. [22] , Saddam Hussein, early in his regime, determined that his primary objective vis – a – vis the army was to “coup proof” it.[23] With each large turnover, the learning curve of new officers began anew. Secondly officer education was emphasized, but it tended to be crippled by the turnover of faculty with political wind changes, as well as a large dose of Ba’athist ideology using training time. A third factor implicit in the inadequacy of the Iraqi officer corps was doctrine and strategy taught was often a mishmash of Soviet and Western operations and methods. This is a vastly underrated consideration. Strategy, operational concepts, tactics, and employment of weaponry, as well as maintenance are culturally driven. Weapons are designed and used within the parameters of the national way of war, meaning within the cultural parameter.[24] The hybrid British-Russian models with fanciful Iraqi illusions of being able to use Israeli operational concepts produced an army of doctrinal and tactical confusion. [25]. Overall the inadequacy of the officer corps was deeply felt down to the lowest level in the Iran-Iraq war. [26]


Much has been written about the irrational Iranian recruits attacking in human waves. Often they are described as little more than a religiously inspired mob. But the truth is that Iraqi troops sent to the front had only rudimentary individual training, and even less unit training. Much of their time was spent in attending political lectures and Ba’athist events to promote military zeal, or running personal errands for their officers. Most striking was the fact that many officers really did not know how much training recruits sent to the infantry received. [27]


Secrecy and Paranoia

As is often found in the study of Arab military history, the paranoia and mistrust of even the closest associates often acted as an impediment to careful and detailed preparation. This was particularly true in the road to war with Iran, Saddam having no real appreciation of the immense effort required to invade such a country as Iran. In mid July 1980 Saddam first mentioned to his top staff officers that he was planning to go to war with Iran. Very little preparation followed as the leadership was dubious of the entire enterprise. On 16 August he informed his commanders of his irrevocable decision to invade Iran. This decision was only disseminated in a desultory fashion to the lower elements at battalion level that had no time to prepare their troops morally and physically for combat.[28] Nor was the materiel status of the military, especially the army, in shape for sustained combat. Maintenance has always been a problem in the Arab army and Iraq was no different.[29]

Throughout the war secrecy and failure to keep subordinates informed was a constant problem, partially because the orders themselves were often absent or confusing. As usual in the era of Saddam, senior and junior commanders presented fragmentary or incomplete orders or plans somewhat based on a inchoate and illusionary understanding of the Western way of war., particularly unit leader initiative implementing general mission type orders. In fact Saddam’s opening scenario for the war was a hackneyed version of the Israeli 1967 war, including massive air attacks. They were poorly executed and did little lasting damage. Commanders issued fragmentary or sketchy orders ostensibly allowing small unit commanders maximum latitude and initiative, but for which they were unprepared to execute. Nothing in their culture or military education had prepared them for this doctrine.[30] It is one of the major issues affecting Iraqi (and Arab) military competence that they have frequently attempted to use Western training methods and operational doctrine, which do not fit into their cultural characteristics. .[31]



Some would dispute it, and there are exceptions to my observation, that Islam (or the people’s understanding of it) is somewhat a detriment to detailed future planning. It is like intruding into God’s domain, the ultimate result of the InshAllah culture.[32] At the most basic level it is the reluctance of Arab drivers to use the seat belt despite government decrees. In my own experience I have seen this at all levels. In the Iraqi-Iranian war it was a obvious aspect of the war, especially at the beginning of the war. According to one Iraqi general who spoke with the ring of truth;

Our troops were just lined up on the border and told to drive into Iran. They had an objective, but no idea how to get there or what they were doing, or how their mission fit the plan, or who would be supporting them.” [33]


In fact the lack of professionalism in Iraqi army staff work, forced the Iraqi planners to dust off an old British army war game exercise from 1941, which had very little, if any, relevance to the conditions and environment existing in 1980. They had no clue as to how to originate a credible plan based on the conditions at the time. Moreover the land and air operations were planned in virtual isolation from one another. This is one of the unfortunate results of the regime’s intent on maintaining a divided command structure, which was part of the regime preservation strategy. An example of the impediments this mind set creates is the fact that during the battle known as the “exterminating pocket” near Muhammara, three Iraq divisions were encircled but Saddam refused to allow extensive air support for fear that the pilots would turn around and attack the presidential palace.[34]


Another issue that always clouded the planning problem was the untoward emphasis on the mythology of the Bedouin martial spirit. Saddam frequently mentioned this as the most important aspect of war as it would overcome all other adverse issues. As General Hamdani told his American interviewers,

….Saddam could only imagine war as tribal conflict or like the conflict between Alexander the Macedonian and the Persian King Darius, or the conflict between Salah ad- Din and the Crusaders.[35]


General Hamdani once told Saddam.” Most of our commanders looked at the war         ( Iran-Iraq) from a tribal perspective, more on -one on- one warfare and not the bigger picture of modern war…”[36]


A third aspect of the planning problem is the issue of information as power. Simply put highly important information is only of value to the holder as long as he is the only one who knows it and others know he has that information. Once dispensed, the information is of no value to the holder. So up and down the Iraqi chain of command, information was withheld by those privy to it to bolster their own importance.[37] Therefore at times, important tactical information did not make it down to the bottom of the chain of command. Again and again, battalion level units at the front had no idea who was on their right or left and what they were up against. Since information was so tightly held, often detailed planning was a hopeless task. Engineers built structures without knowing their purpose, commanders attacked Iranian positions without knowing the objectives.[38]


Decision Making and Responsibility

When the Iraqis were attacking in the Ahwaz area of Iran, the Iranians counter attacked and was pushing the Iraqis back. The Iraqi 3rd Corps commander was very concerned. As it happened the Iraqi Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces was visiting the front at that time and the Corps Commander asked him for advice. The reply was, “I don’t know. You are the Corps Commander. You decide.” [39]

This was indicative of not only the Chief of Staff’s fear of decision-making but just as telling, a corps commander asking for advice when in the Western military thinking, the corps commander should have laid out a course of action and asked for an opinion. In essence it was indicative of the Iraqi military leadership culture throughout the war. Fear of failing, which sometimes meant execution, in produced a culture of lies and exaggeration. Military commanders touted mythical victories and minimized catastrophic failures. As Kanan Makiya rightly described it . “ Fear ‘not Soviet methods’ explains the ponderously inflexible and ever so timid behavior of Iraqi field commanders, a continuous feature of the Iraq performance.[40] Hussein recognized this problem[41] but of course, the culture of fear he created was not to be militated by a couple of Saddam’s cautionary discussions. Consistent with another widespread Arab military trait, Iraqi subordinate officers never questioned their orders, or had the fortitude required to modify even the most inappropriate orders from higher commanders.[42] This is a perfectly understandable trait in that any modification to higher headquarters orders that goes wrong would probably result in execution. [43] To be sure, the subordinate commander could not expect his senior commanders to back him up.


An important aspect of the decision-making process was the frequent micro managing of the war by Saddam Hussein. He was never a soldier, although most of his portraits depicted him in military uniform. One writer described him as fearful of his army (as most Arab leaders are, if not fearful at least cautious). Like Hitler but without any of the prescience and military experience of Hitler, he pontificated on minute characteristics of fortifications, weaponry, strategy and tactics, but especially in his insistence that the superior warrior ethos of the Iraqi soldier would overcome enemy technological advantage.[44]


The Polarization of the Military


If one were forced to pick one salient factor among the many, which retarded Iraqi military effectiveness, the polititization of the Iraqi military under Saddam Hussein would have to be at the top of the list. The many coups and turnovers were endemic in the military before Saddam but he did it with surgical finesse. The omnipresent and omnipotent Ba’ath Party was Saddam’s instrument for control of the military, especially the army. The sectarian and regionalism characteristic of the Iraqi army has always been a debilitating and generally divisive feature, but Saddam was able to use it to his advantage. The divisions and fissures that Saddam had to deal with were as Dina Rizk Khoury so aptly put it. [45]


These were often described inn the language of military difference between the officer corps and the rank and file, between conscripts and enlisted men (career soldiers) Writers note), between soldiers and the popular army, and Ba’athist commissars ensconced in the rear lines and infantry men at the front. Conscripts spoke of distinctions between those connected to certain through ties of patronage and those who were not, between Kurd and Arab, Kurds who served in the paramilitary forces and those who joined the guerrillas. No less important for soldiers were differences between urbanite and country peasant, college graduate and barely literate, and those from certain parts of Iraq and others drawn from Mosul and Takrit, who dominated the upper echelons of the officer corps.


One should immediately add to this list the chasm between Shi’a and Sunni, which Saddam spent many millions and a prodigious effort to meld into the “ new Iraqi Man.”[46] . In this he had some success as the 85% Shi’a soldiers in the army did not desert in large numbers, and bore the majority of the casualties fighting against their Shi’a brethren of Iran. Ultimately it failed, however, as seen some years later in 1991, when many Shi’a soldiers deserted the army and took part in a violent uprising fought against Saddam. No greater example of the basic distrust between the Saddam regime and the Shi’a community than the statement of Major General Mizher Rashid al Tarfa al-Ubaydi, the director of the General Military Intelligence Directorate during the Iran-Iraq war,

“ We had translators for different languages throughout the world. Our only problem was with the Farsi language, because we did not know whom we could trust.” There were many Farsi speakers, but it was always a matter of trust.”[47]


Joseph Sassoon, in his book, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime, [48] details the ubiquitous and menacing intrusion in all aspects of an Officers life and that of his family by the Ba’ath Party. Modeled on the Soviet system of dual command channels, one political and the other military, and with every unit honeycombed with security agents, the officers were in a domestic prison without walls, Fear permeated the system and enervated any initiative until massive military disasters in the Iran-Iraqi war resulted in heavy pressure from the few generals Saddam trusted to produce a somewhat more professional officer corps.  Saddam used the Ba’ath party apparatus to create the Military Bureaus, an institution charged with the task of “….. infiltrating and controlling every aspect of military life.”[49] This Ba’ath Party organization worked in tandem with the various security agencies, which had agents down to battalion level to identify and root out possible resistance against the Saddam regime.


But even the lowest enlisted recruit was not free of government scrutiny. He as forced to so complete and sign under threat of execution for any misstatement concerning the political activities of his family reaching back to great grand parents and extended family cousins. Particular red flags were Communist or Dawa party connection. Also important were the existence of any deserters from within the extended family. Collective family punishments for the misdeeds of a soldier were common if not universal, As usual in the tribal and clan society, some avoided it through family ties to important personages or tribes. As in all Arab military establishments, nepotism and wasta (patronage) were widespread despite occasional attempts to curtail these cultural foundations.


Sectarianism and Regionalism

 The quote of King Faisal I has been used many times but whenever the subject of sectarianism and regionalism comes up it is still the best summation of the problem which continues to the present day.

“In Iraq, there is still no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against government whatsoever”.[50]

My professor at the American University of Beirut, Hanna Batatu always referred to the ”Iraqi instinct for rebellion”[51] . Dr. Ali al Wardi, famous Iraqi historian, said it this way in speaking of the dual character of Iraqis

“The same goes for the patriotic feelings, as many Iraqis love to show their loyalty to their country while talking, but when it comes to army service many of them tend to give lots of excuses just to run away from that honorable duty. “[52]

Kenan Makiya put is succinctly. “Iraqi nationalism understood as a sense of identity with a territorial entity known as Iraq does not exist.” [53] As indicated earlier Saddam went to great lengths to create a new Iraqi man devoid of sectarian loyalties. He made it clear in a speech given in 1975 in which he stated,


We must not speak of the Iraqi who comes from Suleimaniya (a Kurd) and he who comes from Basra (Shi’a) without pointing to his ethnic origins….let us delete the words Arabs and Kurds and replace them with term Iraqi people.[54]


In fact perusing all works done by the Institute of Defense Analysis interviewing the Iraqi generals there is very little mention of the Shi’a Sunni divide as an important factor. But the hypocrisy of Saddam was in plain view in the way he relied on his family, tribe and friends from the Sunni heartland of Iraq, especially Tikrit.

Saddam promoted massive festivals, poets and writers’ symposiums, and celebrations to highlight Mesopotamian greatness prior to the Arab invasion. Of course he dwelled on the common Arab descent of Shi’a and Sunni to foster that common bond he so desperately wanted. Saddam had complete control of the media, and basically through the Ba’ath party, total control of the lives of the people. Saddam building on an Arab “Mesopotamian” culture was at least partially successful. The Iraqi Shi’a stressed their Arab identity and “attempted to accommodate their dual identity within the framework of Iraqi identity. “[55]


The surge of Iraqi nationalism was one factor among others explaining how and why Iraq could sustain   an eight-years war in which 80% of he soldiers and 20% of the officers were Shi’a against a Shi’ite nation led by an ayatollah of noble descent from the Shi’i Imams.[56]


Another factor was the fact that many Iraqi Shi’a lost faith in Iran as the war continued and their migration began to be principally to Europe with no desire to return to Iraq as they had before. The Shi’a that had found temporary refuge in other areas of the Middle East became isolated from the culture and political environment of Iraq.[57] . It is also noticeable that the Shi’a community in general did not harbor hatred of the Iranians because of the huge losses they suffered in the war. Generally it was known as “Saddam’s war” and the losses were blamed on him.


It would be difficult to overestimate the fear   of Iraqi Ba’ath reprisal an punishment not just for the soldiers but also their families.. The fear of the omnipotent Ba’ath security and intelligence agencies were greater than fear of the Iranian enemy. Fear was present at every level. Desertions were met with draconian punishment to the individual and his family. The Ba’ath regime, like most totalitarian regimes kept copious records, and desertions were frequent despite the presence of execution squads in the rear lines to capture and execute deserters.[58]


Probably more importantly, the psychological effect bonding men together in intense combat was undoubtedly a primary reason for the Shi’a soldier continuing to fight for a regime he probably hated or at least had little affection for. Moreover The Saddam military personnel managers were careful not to have regular army units composed entirely of Shi’a or only from a Shi’a region.[59]


In return for the Shi’a “loyalty” in the war against Iran, the Saddam regime did not trust the Shi’s community any more than before. It prefaced the breakdown in Shi’a –Sunni relations in the 1991 Gulf war and the aftermath.


The Kurds were never on board the Saddam “new Iraq man” program because Saddam propagandists had to emphasize the common Arab heritage of both Sunni and Shi’a. Despite forcible enlistment of large numbers of Kurds, the Iraqi Kurds were by and large “disloyal” to the Iraqi regime just as the Iranian Kurds were “disloyal” to the Iranian regime. The major fact was that the Saddam regime felt betrayed by the Kurdish leaders who did not hold to promises made to remain quiet following the Algiers conference when the Shah of Iran pulled the rug out from under the Iraqi Kurds by stopping arms shipments.


Regionalism also played a significant role in the divisions within the Iraqi military. The Sunni were the preferred sect but some were more preferred than others. Despite all his talk of the new Iraqi man devoid of sectarian affiliations, Saddam was very dependent on family, clan, and tribe to maintain himself in power. As soon as he had control of the military he promoted his cronies, mostly all relatives to general officer rank. [60] He drew heavily upon recruits from the Tikrit area and usually when he required greater outreach, to friendly Sunni tribes in the Anbar province.



It would seem that the Iraqi society and their military forces inured to war and bloodletting for decades would have forged an effective fighting machine by the time of the Iran Iraq war and to look ahead to the hapless performance in the 1991 Gulf war and the 2003 war. The Iraqi political and military leadership have been willing to sacrifice their soldiers for Arab causes, despots ambitions, and sometimes for unfathomable reasons, but apparently never read, digested, or concerned themselves with lessons learned, particularly from the Iran-Iraq war. Most likely it has been mythologized by a culture that is almost devoid of serious introspection.


The Iraqi soldiers, mostly peasants from small villages, were usually led by incompetent commanders, who were in turn chained to mediocrity by a near impenetrable culture which does not easily absorb historical lessons or methods from the West or the Eastern Bloc. Usually it finds ways to ignore them. It is testimony to the strength of culture in general, and Arab culture in particular. Young Arab officers would be schooled in the United States and filled with enthusiasm to reform the system, but upon returning would run into a cultural brick wall.


None of the foregoing should be a great surprise to anyone with a long experience on the ground with Arab military but also no surprise that so few venture into the cultural aspect of warfare. It tends to spill over into stereotypes and invites vicious responses and claims of “racism” which tends to dominate academia these days. For instance the best book ever written in English on Arab culture, the Arab Mind by Raphael Patai (I wrote a preface for a couple of editions. Transparency note)) has been regularly disparaged by academia. Patai describes almost every cultural factor surfaced in this paper. While every military has its own subculture, it is very much a part of the overall societal culture. It determines the way an army fights its wars, including the American. It is worth reiterating that in all the wars, there was never a question of the Iraqi soldier’s courage or intelligence. The aggressiveness and tenacity of the individual Iraqi soldier was always present


Also as I have described in previous articles, prolonged Western training has short life once the trainers are removed and the all-powerful culture tends to subsume the military training   environment. This was again demonstrated when the American trainers left Iraq and the Iraqi army became re-politized and corrupted.  Very recently the problem of training the Iraqi forces has been described in Government Accounting Office report describing the lack of success in bringing Iraqi units up to adequate standards.[61]


The factors of extrinsic and intrinsic organization must also be considered. For the most part these factors have been submerged in a morass of academic bloviate, but to an old soldier it is a matter of contrasting the carrot and stick (targhib/tarhib, enticement, intimidation) versus the instillation of individual pride and unit esprit. The Saddam regime depended entirely on the stick in the form of institutionalized fear, and rewards for slavish loyalty. When the regime perks and fear were removed the army fell apart as it did in 2003, and later when a rag tag ISIS contingent overran Mosul. A pervasively corrupt military structure, based on sectarian patronage, disintegrated.


The more recent reoccupation of Mosul by Iraqi forces is a big victory and due credit should be given to them. But the qualifiers are important to remember. With complete control of the air and powerful Western nations supporting them, against a vastly outnumbered ISIS force, the Iraqi forces took months to recapture Mosul. In the long campaign to retake ISIS territory, the Iraqis could only depend on a few units; particularly the US trained “Golden Division,” (Iraqi Special Operations Forces) which took so many casualties they had to be relieved from the final battle for Mosul.


The story of the Iraqi army is a sad one, especially in knowing that the Iraqi army with its inglorious history is still the most trusted institution in Iraq. It is an even sadder commentary on the political and social institutions in Iraq.[62]









[1] Jafar Pasha Al-Askari, A Soldiers Story: From Ottoman Rule to Independent Iraq           Translated by Mustafa Tariq Al –Askari, (London, Arabian Publishing: 2003 ), 242.

[2] Liora Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for National Identity (London, Frank Cass: 1995), 120 -121.

[3] Robert Lyman, Iraq 1941: The Battles for Basra, Habbaniya, Fallujah and Baghdad,  (Oxford, Osprey: 2006), 90-91.

[4] Norvell DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Militaries: Pounding Square Pegs into Round Holes,” MERIA, March 18,2013, accessed 20 June 2017.

[5] Benny Morris, 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008), 245-252.

[6] Morris, 245.

[7] Norvell DeAtkine, “The Arab as Insurgent and Counter-Insurgent”, Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East, ed. Barry Rubin, (London, Routledge: 2009), 24-45.

[8] This section is drawn from Edgar O’Balance, The Kurdish Revolt 1961-1970,( London, Archon Books: 1973, passim. Michael Gunter, The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1992,) 37-48. Edmund Ghareeb, (Syracuse NY, Syracuse University Press: 1981), 71-105. Michael Gunter, The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1999),67-111.

[9] Among the literature I found in abandoned Republican Guard barracks in Nov 2003.

[10] O Balance The Kurdish Revolt, p 170.

[11] My observations while on duty as the Assistant defense Attaché in Jordan. The Iraqi activity based on my conversations with Jordanian officers.

[12] This portion drawn from briefings by the Jordanian 40th Bde, Commander to an American fact-finding mission of which I was a member in 1974. Also from Avigor Kahalani, The Heights of Courage: A Tank Leader’s War on the Golan, (Westport, Connecticut, Praeger: 1994), 179-181. Abraham Rabinovich. The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East, (New York, Schocken Books: 2004), 307-318. Chaim Herzog, The War of Atonement: October 1973, (Boston, Brown, Little and Company: 1975). 137-142.

[13]. See Raphael Patai, The Arab Mind, rev. edition, (Long Island City NY, Hatherleigh Press: 2007), 91-92. See also Norvell B. DeAtkine, “Why Arabs Lose Wars,” Middle East Quarterly, Dec 1999, accessed 20 June 2017,

[14] In this section I am indebted to the excellent work done by Kevin Woods and the team at The Institute of Defense Analysis in producing a number of invaluable monographs on the Iraqi army and the Iran-Iraq war, Kevin M Woods et al. Saddam’s War: An Iraqi Military Perspective of the Iran-Iraq War, (Washington DC, National Defense University: 2009). Kevin Woods et al. Saddam’s Generals: Perspectives of the Iran-Iraq War, Alexandria Va., Institute for Defense Analysis: 2011. Kevin Woods, et al The Saddam Tapes: The Inner Workings of a Tyrant’s Regime 1978-2001, (London, Cambridge University Press: 2011). Particularly helpful for detailed description of the war itself is the work by Pierre Razoux, The Iran-Iraq War, (Cambridge, Ma. Harvard University Press: 2015.) Some great insight into the psychological status and morale of the officer corps is presented in Ibrahim al- Marashi and Sammy Salama,. Iraq’s Armed Forces; An Analytical History, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 129-174.

[15] J.J Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispafan, reprint, (New York, Heritage Press: 1947).

[16] Razoux, 568.

[17] Amatzia Baram, “The Ba’ath Regime and the Iraqi Officers Corps,” 211.

[18] Ibid.

[19] In this section I have relied heavily on my notes and recollections of discussions with Iraqi Officers during my time in Iraq in 2003-2004 and the observations of my students during my 18 Years at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Very helpful to fill in the voids was the work of Dina Rizk Khoury , Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance (New York, Cambridge: 2013), 48-123.

[20] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 146.

[21] Woods, Saddam’s War, 93.

[22] Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Revolutionary Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, (London, Saqi Books:2004), 30.

[23] Sassoon, 29

[24] My personal experiences with Egyptian, Jordanian military and from conversations with US officers training Iraqis.

[25] Razoux,15


[26] Razoux, 319, and my conversations with Iraqi officers.

[27] This came up often in conversations with Iraqi officers and is reminiscence of an observation made by a British officer training the Iraqis in the early 1930’s, officers “only see their men on parade and are not in close sympathy with them.” Mark Heller, “Iraq’s Army: Military Weakness, Political Utility,” in Eds. Amatzia Baram and Barry Rubin, Iraq’s Road to War (New York, St Martin’s Press: 1993). 45 That observation (with some exceptions) is generally still true throughout the Arab militaries.

[28] Woods, Saddam’s War,32.

[29] Norvell B DeAtkine, “The Arab Way of War” (presentation, 1993,JFKSWCS). For instance, as the assistant Army attaché in Jordan, in 1970 I was able to follow the path of Iraqi withdrawal from Jordan during the PLO-JAA conflict by following the path of broken down vehicles.

[30] My experience with Arab armies. Officers, especially commanders, avoid becoming involved with maintenance partially due to a cultural factor viewing manual work as undignified.



[31] DeAtkine, “Western Influence on Arab Armies: Pounding Square pegs into Round Holes.” Accessed 8 July,

[32]   Patai, The Arab Mind, 160.

[33] Pollock, 184.

[34] Baram, Saddam Hussein, “The Ba’ath Regime and the Iraqi Officer Corps,” 216

[35] Woods, Saddam’s War, 94.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hoarding of information as well as equipment at supply depots was a cultural attribute I noticed prevalent throughout the Arab world militaries. Some writers on social mores have noted that the desert mentality of scarcity, i.e., that there is not enough to go around for everyone results in a mentality of holding information and materiel close to the chest. Certainly in both the Iraqi and Egyptian armies, hoarding of needed supplies were always a problem.

[38] Discussions with Iraqi officers Nov 2003 Jan 2004 and American personnel training Iraqis.

[39] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 13

[40] Samir El Khalil, (Kenan Makiya) Republic of Fear, (New York, Pantheon Books:1989), 276.

[41] Woods. Saddam Tape,s 248.

[42] This also constrained intermediate headquarters from appending supplemental instructions to subordinate units resulting often in mass confusion.

[43] The number of offenses considered capital offenses and subject to excursion were mind boggling. See Kenan Makiya, Republic of Fear, 26-27.

[44] Woods, Saddam’s War, 127

[45] Khoury, 96.

[46] Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’athist Iraq, 1968-89, (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991) 34-35. It was primarily Saddam Hussein’s effort to instill Iraqi nationalism.

[47] Woods, Saddam’s Generals, 108

[48] Sassoon, 129-152

[49] Ibid, 130.

[50] There are a number of translations of this quote. One perhaps more erudite is in Ali A, Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War and losing the Peace (New Haven, T Yale University Press: 2007), 17.

[51] Hanna Batatu, Communism in the Arab World course at AUB, Feb 1968.

[52] Ali Al Wardi, “Character of the Iraqis”, excerpt translated by Samah al Momem, Dec 2003.

[53] Kenan Makiya, Republic of Fear, 120.

[54] Woods, Saddam Tapes, 130.

[55] Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq, (Princeton, Princeton University Press: 1994), 238.

[56] Faleh A Jabar, The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq (London, Saqi: 2003), 254.

[57] Ibid, 55.

[58] Khoury,103.

[59] From discussions with Iraqi army officers, Nov 2003. Baghdad Iraq.

[60] Baram, “Saddam Hussein, The Ba’th Regime and the Iraqi Officer Corps.” 211


[62] Al Marashi, 201-211 The attitude of the Iraqi people toward their army is probably the quote from an Iraqi school teacher who said, “regardless of the crimes the army may have committed, it belongs to the people and remains the symbol of national unity.” Ibid, 206. Quoted originally in the   International Crisis Group, “Iraqi building a new security structure, “Middle East Report, 5.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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