WASHINGTON—After Iraq, the biggest loser in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was the former Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein's main source of military hardware and doctrine.
History may be repeating itself.
Apparently determined to avoid another humiliation at American hands, two former Soviet Army generals have been so deeply involved in helping to prepare the Iraqi military for a rematch with the Americans that on the eve of this war, Saddam ordered them decorated with high honors in Baghdad.
Gen. Vladimir Achalov, a former Soviet deputy defense minister and a former commander of airborne and rapid-reaction forces, and Gen. Igor Maltsev, a leading expert in air defense systems, left Baghdad only six days before the war began, U.S. officials confirmed.
Achalov wouldn't say why Iraqi Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Akhmed decorated the two, telling the Russian Internet newspaper Gazeta.ru, which ran a photograph of the two in the Iraqi capital, only: "We didn't fly to Baghdad to drink coffee."
Both generals were communist hard-liners who were part of the abortive coup attempt against the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Administration officials said it wasn't clear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer who has pursued better relations with the United States but opposes the U.S.-led war in Iraq, was aware of the two generals' work with the Iraqis, much less whether he approved of it.
"The ties between the Soviets and the Iraqis were very close at almost every level, in the military, in the intelligence services and in the foreign ministry," said one administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "A lot of them took the Gulf War personally, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them looked for ways to get even. But that probably doesn't include Putin, who I think looks ahead, not backward."
Last month, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Yuri Ushakov, was summoned to the State Department to hear an official protest against illegal deliveries of equipment designed to jam the Global Position System locator signals used by American missiles and smart bombs, as well as new generation night-vision goggles and advanced anti-tank missiles. The Russian government denied that it had any hand in delivering weapons to the Iraqis in violation of U.N. embargoes.
As capitalism has taken root in Russia, it's often hard to tell where the government ends and private enterprise begins. In what appears to be another public-private venture intended to help the Iraqis and undermine the Americans, a Russian Web site, Iraqwar.ru, has been publishing what it claims are daily reports from the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service.
The senior American official said the site appeared to mix genuine Russian intelligence reports, some of them based on intercepts of U.S. communications, with disinformation about coalition defeats and battle losses. Another official, who also requested anonymity, speculated that the Web site might be a clever attempt to pass useful information to the Iraqis by posting it publicly on the Internet.
Other U.S. Soviet specialists said they weren't surprised that hard-liners such as Achalov and Maltsev were advising the Iraqi regime. "Remember how stunned and crestfallen the Soviet brass was by the first Gulf War massacre of their equipment and the people they'd trained?" asked one. "More than one would be delighted to see the Americans stumble and would help to make that happen in any way they could."
Whether they were freelancing or not, Gazeta.ru reported that Achalov and Maltsev had been making three or four trips a year to Baghdad for the last five or six years.
American military and intelligence officials and military analysts said the advice from former Soviet cold warriors has been evident in the new tactics Saddam has employed from Day One of the American invasion: the avoidance of set-piece armor battles with Americans who outgun the old Soviet-made T-72 tanks, the use of hit-and-run attacks on American supply lines by irregulars operating in civilian clothes and from civilian vehicles, and the apparent attempt to preserve Iraqi air defenses for a final battle of Baghdad.
The Russian advisers also may be behind the puzzling failure of the Iraqis to defend their positions south of Baghdad, and instead to withdraw some of their best troops and best weapons into the capital, and perhaps also into some of the cities the Americans have bypassed in their fast-moving drive to the outskirts of the city.
So far, however, advice and equipment from Moscow don't appear to have helped the Iraqis any more than they did in 1991.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.