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Thousands of Iraqi troops discard uniforms, begin long walk home

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq _The Marines' top war planner, Col. Fred Milburn, was pulling an all-nighter, drafting a plan for the final attack on Baghdad, when the Iraqi capital fell. Two days later, he was planning an attack on Kirkuk, when that northern city fell.

The red-haired, soft-spoken Milburn is fond of saying that "the enemy gets a vote" in any plan. The Iraqis certainly voted—with their feet.

Thousands of Saddam Hussein's 360,000-man army deserted until the military was little more than long strips of uniforms discarded along empty highways. Just why puzzles even the officers who played major roles in the war.

"I wish I could sagely answer that question," said Col. Alan Baldwin, 49, of Panama City, Fla., an intelligence chief at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which commands 60,000 Marines and 25,000 British troops.

Four entire divisions, maybe up to 30,000 men, deserted around Kirkuk on Friday, changing into civilian clothes and starting the long walk home in loose columns as they grinned and flashed victory signs for passing journalists.

Two other divisions simply disappeared around the southeastern town of Amara, where Marines reported spotting one local farmer dragging his plow behind a Soviet-era BMP armored vehicle.

Others abandoned 100 tanks in a Baghdad motor pool and 39 artillery cannons in a base to the southeast. British troops captured enough weapons to equip four divisions.

With no more conventional battles ahead of them, military planners are assessing the Iraq campaign, one of the fastest in history, to understand just what took place. Figuring out why the Iraqi army failed to make a stand is key.

One probability, Baldwin said, is that Saddam's troops simply hated him as much as many other Iraqis and lacked the loyalty to fight, even when their homeland was invaded by a foreign, non-Muslim force.

"It's hard to defend a dictator," said Baldwin, noting that the 7,300 enemy prisoners of war near the southern port of Umm Qasr erupted into cheers when they heard Baghdad had fallen Wednesday.

Another powerful reason is that U.S. airstrikes broke the soldiers' morale. With Marine aircraft flying 300 missions a day, "the enemy tends to dissolve pretty quickly," Marine aviator Lt. Col. Brian Delahaut said.

But the airstrikes lasted nowhere near the 39 days of aerial pounding the Iraqis suffered in the 1991 Gulf War before the launch of the 100-hour ground campaign, when 70,000 POWs were captured.

The U.S. and British military threw 250,000 of the world's best-trained troops into the 21-day battle, armed with devastatingly deadly and accurate weapons and gee-whiz gadgets the Iraqis could never hope to match.

Senior Marine officers had predicted that it would take 25 to 30 days to get to the edges of Baghdad, that some of the fighting would be fierce, that U.S. casualties could be as high as 5,000 dead and wounded.

Yet when it came to the conventional ground battle, American military commanders were shocked and puzzled as they repeatedly attacked empty bunkers, blasted abandoned tanks and rolled unopposed into enemy headquarters.

"We're trying to find hard targets. We're trying to find soft targets. They are all empty," Lt. Col. Dave Pere said at the Marines' main combat operations center during the Marine advance. "We're hitting hollow forces."

Nowhere did the Iraqi military put up a real fight. Instead the fight came from small bands of Saddam's Baath Party and fedayeen militias and an estimated 5,000 foreign Muslims who poured in to fight a jihad against the Western occupiers.

U.S. military planners did not expect such massive disappearances, although they had planned for surrenders that never really came. Marines had planned for 15,000 prisoners of war in their portion of the conflict, and the overall U.S.-British ground command, the Combined Forces Land Component Command, had supplies for 30,000 and emergency plans for another 50,000.

Some of that might be because of something the Marines had not anticipated: Saddam had sent hundreds of loyalist officers south to mount a rear-guard resistance. There is evidence that they publicly executed deserters: U.S. forces found the bodies of several Iraqi soldiers, sometimes arrayed in rows, their hands tied and shot in the head with small-caliber weapons such as pistols.

"The balance early on was fear of the regime, so a lot of soldiers stayed in their places," Baldwin said.

U.S. ground forces, meanwhile, bypassed six regular army divisions in southern Iraq while they girded for the decisive attacks on the four Republican Guard divisions protecting the capital.

That's when U.S. jets and attack helicopters began intense day and night bombing strikes on the Guard divisions around Baghdad—up to 1,300 missions a day—in preparation for the ground attacks.

"Not only to destroy their equipment but to degrade their will to fight. It went swimmingly," Baldwin said. "We eroded them to almost no combat capability in a matter of two or three days."

Bombs also rained on Baath Party headquarters across Iraq, psychological blows to the resistance. The opposition in Basra collapsed one day after two F-15s struck a meeting of 200 local Baath officials Sunday.

By the time the Army and Marines launched their coordinated attack April 1, most of the enemy had simply vanished.

The Marines' Regimental Combat Team 1 made a run at the Baghdad division, trying to get it to reveal its artillery positions, and got nothing. RCT 7 made another run from the northwest and got the same result.

Pushing west Thursday to clean up the regular army's 10th and 14th divisions near the south central town of Amara—bypassed in the rush to Baghdad—5,000 Marines found only uniforms abandoned along Highway 6.

They also found 15 empty T-62 tanks "and a lot of happy civilians," Lt. Col. Bennett Freemon said. "All I know is that there's no military there."

It was pretty much the same story as the Army and Marines attacked into Baghdad this week, running into opposition largely from bands of Saddam militias but not regular military units.

One Marine colonel reported that a group of Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes approached him in Nasiriyah last week and asked what he planned for them. When he told them nothing, the Iraqis hugged him and walked away.

"I guess the bad guys decided they weren't bad guys any more," British Army Lt. Col. Jamie Martin said.

"They are proceeding with life as civilians," U.S. Central Command spokesman Brig Gen. Vincent Brooks said Friday as columns of former Iraqi soldiers from the four-division V Corps walked home.

Baldwin, IMEF's intelligence chief, said he believed that it was no all the result of bombings and leaflets, however.

"Perhaps the regime was a lot less formidable and a lot more fragile than we thought it was," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.