BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi military commanders, certain they could never counter overwhelming American air power, thought they could defeat the United States by making a bloody stand for Baghdad that would so sicken the American public that the United States would withdraw its troops and go home.
So Iraqi field commanders were surprised April 8, as they were preparing to battle American incursions into the capital, when they were ordered to withdraw and return to their bases north of the city, according to an Iraqi major who was commanding a battalion in the northeast sector of the city.
The commanders withdrew as instructed, and then, once they reached their base, were told that they and their soldiers could go home, the major recalled.
Maj. Salah Abdullah Mahdi al Jabouri, a 17-year army veteran, described the order as a personal tragedy. "I stayed inside my bedroom for five days, in shock," he said.
"If we weren't Muslims we would do the same as the Japanese ministers: kill ourselves," he said, gesturing an imaginary pistol to his head. "But we can't because of our religion."
Jabouri's account provides at least a partial explanation for the mysterious disappearance of Iraqi forces from Baghdad in the final hours of the battle for the capital.
At the time, U.S. troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division had pushed from the west to the Tigris River in central Baghdad and Marines had seized the Rashid military air base to the city's southeast. Then, on April 9, American commanders found themselves with no organized opposition. Before the day had ended, Marines had arrived in Baghdad's Fardos Square and helped Iraqis pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein.
But Jabouri said the disappearance wasn't the result of desertion or a disorganized rout, but was ordered by the highest levels and communicated to field units by telephone.
Jabouri, with tears often welling up in his eyes, told his story this week at the Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad's posh Mansour district, once a playground for Saddam's Baath Party elite. Now it serves as advance headquarters for Pentagon-backed Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi.
Jabouri had walked into the club looking for the people in charge and, encountering U.S. reporters, agreed to discuss the war and how it felt to lose the once-proud city of Baghdad.
"Losing a war is one thing, but losing Baghdad is another," he explained, tears glistening in his eyes. "It was like losing the dearest thing in your life."
Much of Jabouri's account mirrors what U.S. military spokesmen have said about the war's progress, and it is easy to match the events he recalled with American versions.
However, one contradiction was Jabouri's assertion that his unit never lost contact with his superiors, in spite of U.S. claims that the Iraqi army's "command and control" structure had been all but destroyed by American air attacks. He said the decision to abandon Baghdad came from a general direct to Jabouri's brigade commander and then conveyed to him. The order to send his troops home came directly to him from a general at his unit's base in Diyala.
Among Jabouri's other observations:
_Iraqi soldiers perceived the American attack as "less aggressive" than the campaign that drove Iraqi invaders from Kuwait 12 years ago. Jabouri indicated that that perception made the decision to abandon Baghdad even harder to understand. "So when it fell, we were desperate," he said.
_Commanders understood that a war of attrition against American forces could be suicidal. But Jabouri said he understood that the defense of Iraq, their homeland, was different from the battle for Kuwait, a country whose invasion and occupation he questioned. "We went to war expecting that everybody was going to die; we imagined the worst," he said. "But to lose your country is bigger."
_The biggest mistake of the war, from an Iraqi perspective, was a decision March 25 to send military units south from Baghdad to engage U.S. forces near Najaf. The move exposed the units to air attack, with catastrophic results. "We lost a lot," Jabouri said.
_The Iraqi military dispatched its dead for burial in their hometowns in private vehicles that often passed through American lines undetected.
Jabouri acknowledged that coalition air strikes were devastating, killing one-third of his 4,000-man brigade. He also acknowledged widespread desertion. On the final day of the war, more than half his brigade declined to make the march out of Baghdad and simply melted into the city.
The war began for Jabouri near Kifri in northern Iraq, where his battalion of Iraq's 2nd Division was dug in against what it expected would be an assault by U.S. soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas.
Five days into the war, however, "it became clear" to commanders that Turkey wouldn't allow an American invasion from its soil. So they were ordered to Baghdad.
A sandstorm that had all but halted American military movements proved helpful to the Iraqis, Jabouri said. While some coalition aircraft dogged his unit's redeployment southward, casualties were light, about 10 soldiers, and most of the brigade made the move unharmed: 44 T-72 tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, trucks loaded with rocket-propelled grenades and 4,000 troops with AK-47 assault rifles along the roads. American commanders detected the movement and announced it the next day.
By then, Jabouri's troops had taken up new positions northeast of Saddam City, the largely Shiite slum sector of Baghdad. But they would find that with the sandstorms gone, U.S. airpower was devastating.
Jabouri said that between the 12th and 15th days of the war, or between March 31 and April 3, his unit was hit by two massive air attacks. Of the 700 men in his battalion, 200 were lost; the attacks killed 1,400 men and destroyed 12 tanks in his brigade, he said.
"If our troops had good air cover and good technology, I don't think the Americans would have dared to cross the border and fight us," he said.
In spite of their losses, his troops engaged American ground forces once and beat them back, killing three U.S. infantrymen, and causing them to withdraw 12 miles to the south, to Salman Pak, he said.
Jabouri's account of the battle differs from American versions, which acknowledge that Marines encountered Iraqi units April 5 in their first efforts to cross the Diyala River, and pulled back after realizing that bridges across the river were mined. But the Americans said they weren't pushed back by Iraqi opposition, just moving south to find other places to cross.
Of the U.S. dead, Jabouri said, "They picked them up and they drew back."
By his account, his forces had held together and were still prepared to fight when headquarters telephoned the retreat orders and dispatched them to a base about 25 miles north of Baghdad.
Soldiers knew that such a withdrawal surely meant the surrender of the capital, he said, and that's when, from the military point of view, it all fell apart.
Only 1,200 of the brigade's surviving 2,600 members went to the base as ordered. The other 1,400 "stayed behind ... because they had family in Baghdad." They walked away from their units, melted back into the city and went home.
At the base, Gen. Fawzi Alaheibi "came to me and expressed his deepest sympathy and condolences," Jabouri said. "He said, `Sorry guys, you can go home.'"
There was no further explanation of why the retreat had been ordered.
Jabouri reached his native Tikrit on April 9, dropped off by a military car. He stepped inside the home he shares with his wife and four children, and stripped off his uniform for the last time.
Then on Wednesday, he donned gray trousers, black business shoes and a gray checked shirt, made his way to Baghdad and walked into the Iraqi Hunting Club.
"Put yourself in my shoes: What would you do?" Jabouri said, defending his decision to go to war. "If anyone comes to invade your country, you don't have any rules. You don't think about Saddam or anybody."
A soldier since he was conscripted at age 13, during the Iran-Iraq war, Jabouri said he felt no similar loss toward the American counterinvasion of Kuwait in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
As a lieutenant in the elite Republican Guard then, he said, he took part in the August 1990 invasion of the neighboring oil country, but was already back in Iraq when that war began.
Besides, he said, this battle was for Iraqi soil; he was fighting for himself and his country, not for the leader the Americans came to topple.
So whom, then, does he blame for Baghdad's loss?
Both the U.S. government and his toppled president, Saddam Hussein.
"The United States wants our oil," he said smoothly, echoing a widely held conspiracy theory here. "And Saddam Hussein, well, he is not a good political leader."
(Peter Smolowitz contributed to this report from Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.