Iraqi General Tells of Arab Armies' Admiration for IDF

General, one of Saddam Hussein's favorites, says Iran army now is similar in nature to the Iraq army of 1990.

This week Benjamin Netanyahu gave a reason to believe - finally - that he's right about something, if the reports are true: that Barack Obama is determined to oust him from office. Netanyahu clearly hopes Obama will take a firm stand against North Korea's Kim Jong-il and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khameini. But if the U.S. president surrenders to Netanyahu on construction in the settlements, what chance does he have against Pyongyang and Tehran?

If Netanyahu gives in, the current Israeli government will fall, because his natural coalition partners back "natural population growth," which requires building in the settlements.

Also this week, 3,000 to 4,000 Israelis were killed, and nearly 10,000 were injured in a computerized war game conducted by the army's Home Front Command. The scenario for the practice drill that took place on Sunday is not unfounded. It is enough for moderate Arab regimes to be swept out of office, for old army alliances and plans to be revived, and for soldiers to be dispatched from countries that do not border Israel.

Concentrating on the Palestinian arena, with all its importance and proximity, ignores Israel's biggest threats. A Palestine squeezed between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is one thing; its usefulness is greater than its potential damage. A Palestine bordering on a hostile Jordan, with bellicose Iraq and Iran at its back, at the vanguard of a renewed eastern front against Israel, is another thing entirely.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy is a former head of military intelligence who led the team that held talks with Syria in 2000. He often says the four crucial regional factors are neither Arab nor Palestinian. Saguy is talking about the Americans, Iranians, Israelis and Turks. He knows much more than he is saying, and has a strong influence on the two central security figures, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and MI head Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin.

Ashkenazi is perceived abroad, especially in Washington, as representing the army's constant presence in Israeli policy. Under his guidance, the army's planning division charts Israel's security interests, as opposed to its "national interests," a vague term that encompasses politics, ideology and religion.

Ashkenazi hasn't changed in the prime ministerial transition from Ehud Olmert to Benjamin Netanyahu; and the defense minister, Ehud Barak, also hasn't changed. The Saguy-Ashkenazi school, veteran Golani Brigade fighters willing to return the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for peace, gives top importance to nudging Bashar Assad, now weighing the possibilities of Iran on his right and the west on his left, to join the moderate camp.

Finding the links

A fascinating book, "Saddam's War," explains the link between these spheres. The book, recently published by the Pentagon's National Defense University press, was authored by three American experts. They spoke at length with Iraqi Gen. Ra'ad Hamdani, former commander of the second battalion of the Republican Guard Corps in the 2003 war in the Gulf, and one of Saddam Hussein's favorite officers. The authors followed research methods used after World War II, in which German generals were interviewed in order to learn what they saw as the strong and weak points of the different political and military apparatuses involved in the war.

Hamdani participated in all of Saddam's wars, and survived all the purges, in part because he led a unit that included a protege of the young officer Qusay, the ruler's son. The U.S. is primarily interested in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, with an emphasis on learning about Iran as a current and possible future enemy, and its instigation of lethal sabotage against American forces in Iraq. Hamdani says the Iranian army has improved since the Khomeini period, and now is similar in nature to the Iraq army of 1990, but, lacking the ability to maneuver tank battalions, it prefers to use small units of foot soldiers and specializes in training organizations like Hezbollah.

Hamdani's experiences as a cadet in the Jordanian military academy during the Six-Day War, and as a junior officer in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, provide further evidence that, until their defeat in June 1967, the Arab regimes, armies and peoples assumed they could destroy Israel. In six days this feeling turned into humiliation at their armies' defeat, awareness that their governments had failed, and admiration for the Israeli army. "For us, the Israeli generals were the professors," especially in the use of armored vehicles, and in penetrating enemy lines, Hamdani says in the book.

Before the 1973 war, Hamdani says, all Iraqi first lieutenants like him learned the names of Israel Defense Forces generals and reviewed their backgrounds and military deeds. "I had seven or eight books in my tent all about the Israeli training, preparations and weapons ... Everybody was interested in learning about our enemy," he says.

In 1972, Hamdani's brigade moved from Jordan to Iraq, along with the rest of the 3d Armored Division, and trained for a long time in the desert, in an imitation of Israeli training, Hamdani says. The contempt preceding the 1967 war had turned into the shock of defeat, which turned into a desire for revenge, which brought about the 1973 war. The Israeli army's ability to recover from its first losses in the 1973 war convinced the Arabs that Israel was much stronger than they had believed, Hamdani said.

The 1967 defeat goaded the Arab armies, including Iraq's, to become more professional. Rulers did not entirely stop advancing uneducated and unskilled officers for personal and political reasons, but there was a serious overhaul. One of the conclusions reached by the Iraqi army was that it must, like the armies of Egypt and Jordan, rid itself of the slow and laborious British army model. After World War II, the Arabs imitated the British and lost; the Israelis adopted the German army model, making lightning strikes and responding flexibly to developments, and won.

The investment in improving the army's capabilities paid off in October 1973, in the tactical and logistical success of the Iraqi contingent, which surprised the IDF by moving from Baghdad to the Golan and immediately entering the fighting, Hamdani said. While not all the details are correct, it is true that the Iraqi forces contributed to restraining a counterattack by the IDF, which had approached Damascus, and thereby prevented the fall of Syria. The achievement encouraged Iraq to examine its faults, "among them a considerable deficiency in technological knowledge - a direct result of the deficiencies in the educational systems of the Arab world," and to try to correct them, Hamdani said.

Until its defeat in 2003, this remained the Iraq army scenario: the basis of its planning and training for the next war, a clash with Israel on the borders of Syria or Jordan. As a student in army colleges at the end of the 1970s, Hamdani trained repeated for war with the only enemy: not Iran, but Israel. The armored brigades, a multidivisional force, stood at the ready.

Training for Israel, ready for Iran

Hamdani says preparations to face the IDF improved the Iraqi army's fitness and granted it an advantage in its first battles alongside the Jordanians. The Iraqis had formed specialized units based on the Israeli model, and tried, unsuccessfully, to imitate the Israeli air force in surprise assaults on Iranian air bases. The Iranian army, with its American equipment, including Phantom jets, was unfit and untrained, and was seen by the Iraqis as similar but inferior to but their main enemy - "half an IDF." Iraq, ever since Saddam denounced Sadat's peace agreement with Israel as treason, was eager to go to war against Israel, defeat it, and win precedence in the Arab world.

After the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam planned to bring his Republican Guard to Jordan or Syria in order to attack Israel. Saddam was convinced he could destroy Israel and even bragged about it in "many meetings," Hamdani said.

The encounter with the American army, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, made Hamdani change his mind and admire it even more than the Israeli army. He was impressed by the disciplined soldiers and officers in their battle vests and helmets in the fiery desert heat on the Saudi-Kuwait border, and by their mighty technological superiority.

The armies of Saddam and Ayatollah Khomeini were not the mirror image of the American army, but rather an inverse, because the leaders of Baghdad and Teheran gave more weight to extremism, national or religious, and measured success by the number of losses, just as was done in the first World War. This method, which encouraged commanders to carry out mass slaughters and to under-report casualties, caused failures in battle, among other things; headquarters were not asked to send reinforcements when the true situation was being concealed.

And then came the use of chemical weapons, by both sides. This information is a cold shower for anyone willing to bet on Iran's unwillingness to use weapons of mass destruction, either because it will also be struck hard in return or because it might harm Palestinians. The fear of hurting Muslims, including civilians, did not stop the Ayatollah (or Saddam), and neither did the loss of hundreds of thousands of civilians, soldiers and militia members. Iranians against Iraqis, and both or either against Israel, are not exactly the Americans fighting the Soviets.

Hamdani describes Khomeini, at the head of the Iranian forces' chain of command, as being "like the Pope during the Crusades." Coordination improved under Khameini, but the expectation of complete obedience to a religious command takes a toll on the army's professionalism and administration, which is even more vulnerable to being paralyzed by air strikes.

Hamdani's interviewers conducted detailed war games with him - the Iraqis or the Americans against Iran - and these chapters read like a guide to the next war. Iran is concerned about attacks on many of its 30,000 essential sites, and does not have enough surface-to-air missiles to protect them, Hamdani says. Well before the first shot, it is worthwhile to exploit inter-ethnic tensions and the weakened loyalties of the younger generation to the revolutionary regime.

The conversations with Hamdani provide rare witness to the seriousness of America's preparations for a military clash with Iran, at the instigation of either side, but do not prove that Washington will be dragged into such a fight for the benefit of a third party, such as Israel.

Ehud Barak set out for meetings at the White House and the Pentagon this week to convince the Obama administration to provide essential equipment in the event of a military campaign against Iran. There is no knowing whether approval will be granted, when the time comes, but any way you look at it, what Israel must give in return is clear, no matter who leads the government.