The Republican Guard, Al-Haris Al-Jamhuri

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Ibrahim Al-Marashi
April 3, 2003

Al-Haris al-Jamhuri (The Republican Guard) has provided stiff resistance against American and UK forces deployed in Iraq. Understanding its evolution and structure can help explain why this military force has proven a formidable foe during the current crisis. The Republican Guard expanded rapidly during the Iran-Iraq War, although it was created to serve as a praetorian guard, to provide protection for all presidential sites, including offices and personal residences, as well as escorting Saddam when he is traveling within Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, the Special Republican Guard assumed these responsibilities. The Republican Guards are the best equipped and trained units among Saddam’s forces and receive better pay and privileges than the regular Iraqi army. All Republican Guard troops are volunteers rather than conscripted. The majority of Iraq’s Republican Guards are Sunni Arab Muslims, opposed to Iraqi Shi’as and Kurds.

The Iraqi Ministry of Defense does not directly control the Republican Guard, but rather, Qusay Hussein, head of the Special Security Organization supervises this unit. However, even though the Guard and regular Army are separate institutions, they can fight effectively together in defensive operations. The Republican Guard is used as a screen between the army and Baghdad, to prevent any coup attempts. Despite Saddam’s high-profile use of the Republican Guard, they are strategically deployed outside Baghdad so as not to facilitate or allow any one of the Guard units to act against the regime. The Special Republican Guards are the largest armed units allowed inside of Baghdad.

The Republican Guard six divisions include: an armored division, three mechanised divisions and two infantry divisions, as well as three Special Forces brigades. Each division has approximately 8,000 to 10,000 men, with total manpower estimated at approximately 60,000 – 80,000 men.

When the current war began on March 20, US air strikes concentrated on the three armored Republican Guard divisions, defending Baghdad: the Madina Division, the al-Nida Division, and the Baghdad Division. The Guard may have artillery shells capable of deploying chemical munitions.

The Divisions of the Guard that have been prominent in this conflict are the:

  • al-Nida Division
  • Baghdad Division
  • Madina al-Munawarah Division
  • Nebuchadnezzar Division
  • Adnan Division
  • Hammurabi Division

The Fighting Capability of the Republican Guard

On August 2, 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait using four Republican Guard divisions. The Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar Republican Guard Divisions attacked from the north via the Basra highway, while the Medina and Tawakalna Republican Guard Divisions attacked from the west across the Wadi al-Batin. By early September 1990, these divisions had returned to their pre-invasion locations in south-eastern Iraq and less-capable army divisions had been deployed to replace them.

The destruction of the Guard was a primary aim of the US-led Coalition Force in the 1991 Gulf War. Some eight Republic Guard divisions took part in the Gulf War, and were heavily damaged. Saddam Hussein withdrew two Guard divisions from Kuwait under the smoke cover of oil well fires on February 24, 1991. A third Republican Guard division also withdrew from Kuwait after suffering some damage. The surviving Republican Guard elements retreated to the environs of Baghdad and then took part in suppressing an armed Shi’a and Kurdish insurgency from March to April 1991.

Executions of suspect officers from the Republican Guards was a common phenomenon after the 1991 Gulf War. The Fidayin Saddam militia and the Iraqi Security apparatuses had been deployed in the past during times of dissension within the Republican Guard. In June of 1992, Saddam was able to repel a coup attempt from within this unit. Saddam had received information indicating that a mechanized brigade of the Republican Guard commanded by Brigadier Sabri Mahmoud in Taji (located northwest of Baghdad) was planning an assault on Saddam’s headquarters in Baghdad. The attempted coup was intercepted and suppressed by Iraqi internal security forces.

It is possible that coups such as the one previously described were generated as a result of the large scale purging of military officers. Accordingly, Saddam called a meeting with his loyal officers and charged that Jordan and the United States were responsible for the latest coup attempt and used it as justification for purging more military officers.

After Operation Desert Fox, Saddam promoted a large number of officers from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit to senior positions in the Guard. This action had upset many Iraqi senior officers, who felt that this action was a political maneuver.

On June 2, 1999 Al-Zaman, a London based newspaper reported that on May 24 at 3 a.m. Baghdad time, the Adnan Republican Guard Tank Battalion along with a company from Iraq’s 33rd Special Forces Brigade attempted to leave a camp known as Suwayrah. Following a dispute between the guard on duty and the Tank Battalion Commander, the latter aimed his tank at the base commander’s residence and began to open fire. The clash resulted in numerous deaths and was presumably another attempt at a rebellion from within Saddam’s most elite military forces.

Based on these past precedents, war planners had predicted that the Republican Guard would not serve as an effective fighting force, nor put up much resistance to an American attack. However, the Guard has demonstrated a sustained will to engage US and UK forces during the current conflict. After the Iraqi Shi’a and Kurds revolted against the regime in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the weakened Republican Guard rallied behind Saddam Hussein, and brutally suppressed the insurrection. This uprising took on an ethnic and sectarian nature, and it appeared as if the predominantly Arab Sunni Republican Guards were defending their privileged status in the Iraqi state. In their perception, this privileged status would not be guaranteed in a post-Saddam Iraq, and thus could explain their motivation in defending a regime, where they are the elite stratum in Iraq’s society, as well as the premier fighting unit.

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