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Iraqi Troops Were Optimistic Going into War - 2003-04-16

The U.S.-led war in Iraq relied in large part on American supremacy in the air and high-technology weapons. There was little doubt in the minds of coalition commanders they could defeat the Iraqi Army. But what did the Iraqi soldiers think about their prospects?

At the start of the war, 30-year-old Saleh Abdullah Mahdi al-Juburi was part of Iraq's second division, based in Kufri, in the northern province of Sulaimaniya.

But the Iraqi major did not stay there for long.

On the fifth day, after Turkey refused to let American troops use its territory to launch a northern offensive, he and the 700 men he commanded moved south toward Baghdad, along with nearly 4,000 other troops in their brigade. Another brigade of 4,000 joined them the next day.

As he sipped a glass of sugary tea in a hunting club in central Baghdad that was once the favored playground of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, Major Juburi told the story of the fall of Baghdad from the Iraqi side of the battle.

"If we only had air cover for our troops and high-tech missiles, I do not think the Americans would have been able to come into Baghdad," said the Iraqi officer.

Instead, he says the non-stop massive U.S. air strikes between the 12th and 15th days of the war took a heavy toll, killing 800 of the 4,000 troops of his brigade.

"We knew we could not match the American air power," said Major Juburi, "but we thought we could increase their losses to a point the Americans would say the Iraqis are an equal match for us and they would stop the war."

It was not until the 19th day of the war that Major Juburi's brigade battled U.S. Marines on the ground. He says his forces pushed the Marines back and never met them in battle again. They were afraid to face us, he says.

The father of three fought to defend Baghdad until the city fell to coalition forces. Faster, he said, than anyone had expected.

On the morning of April 8, his commander ordered the troops to withdraw back to the north and await their next orders. Some men defected and went home to protect their families. Others followed him back north, tired and full of despair.

"We knew then that the war was over," says Major Juburi. "Why would we go back north when the biggest battle was in Baghdad. Our commander says he was sorry for what had happened and told us all to go home."

On April 9, he headed home to Tikrit, a day he says he will never forget.

When he arrived at his house, he took off his military uniform and locked himself in his bedroom for the next five days.

"At that moment, I felt helpless," says the officer. "I would have put a bullet to my head and committed suicide. But I am a Muslim and it is against my religion. But this was how mad I was. I don't like to see such humiliation."

Major Juburi says he is angry, angry at Saddam Hussein and at the United States. "I blame Saddam Hussein because he was not a good political leader. I blame the United States because they wanted our oil," he said.

And he blames his military commanders for moving the Republican Guard south from Baghdad to meet the advancing coalition forces that had already isolated the southern cities of Najaf, Karbala, Nasariyah and Basra.

He says it was a big mistake.

Major Juburi is no stranger to war. He joined the army during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. He was part of the Iraqi invasion force in Kuwait in 1990.

Losing Kuwait he says was not important to him but losing Baghdad was another matter.

Tears well up in his eyes as he explains.

"Losing the war is one thing, but losing Baghdad is another," said the major. "Baghdad is like losing the thing you hold dearest to you. Losing your country is bigger even than losing the men who fought with you to defend it."

He has come to Baghdad for the first time since the end of the war. It is painful, he said, to see American troops on the city streets. "To me, it's occupation."

Major Juburi says the American forces allowed Iraqi troops to transport their dead back to their homes for proper burial. In the end, his brigade had lost more than one-fourth of its 4,000 troops - 1,400 men in all, including 200 of the 700 men he commanded.