Forces: What Replaced Saddams Army


September 10, 2007: After four years of effort, the Iraqi government has managed to produce a force of about half a million armed men. Saddam had at his disposal about twice as many. How do the two forces compare?

Currently, Iraq has an army of 150,000 troops. Before Saddam was ousted in 2003, the active duty army consisted of about 250,000 troops. Some 40 percent of these were the elite Republican Guard. Nearly all the army officers, and most of the NCOs, were Sunni Arabs. In the Republican Guard, everyone was Sunni Arab, as this outfit was, in effect, Saddam's "royal guard" and his main defense against a revolt by the army. The other 150,000 troops were mainly Sunni and Shia draftees, although there were Kurd and other minorities (Turks, and several Christian groups). At the time of the invasion, about 100,000 reservists (men who had done their conscript service recently) had been recalled to active duty. There were another 600,000 or so reservists who could have been called up. But many of these were Shia Arabs, and Saddam didn't want to see lots of armed Shia, in uniform or not.

The major difference between the current Iraqi army and Saddams force is training. The only troops Saddam allowed to get much training was the Republican Guard. The Shia Arab and Kurdish troops had fought for Saddam in the 1980s war with Iran, but quickly deserted when confronted by Coalition (mainly U.S.) troops in Kuwait in 1991. Same thing happened during the 2003 invasion. Some Republican Guard forces put up a fight, but most of the army fled. Saddam's army was a weak combat force, and even the Republican Guard was quickly broken. Note that the Iraqi army had a long history of shabby performance.

The core of Saddams armed forces were his secret police, intelligence and paramilitary organizations. All these amounted to about 100,000 armed men. Many were basically thugs in civilian clothes. But they could be depended on. Less reliable were the 100,000 or so national police and border guards. These could be bribed, although in wealthier areas, the cops received additional payments from local civilians, and maintained law and order.

In effect, Saddam built a reliable force of 200,000 Sunni Arab troops and secret police (from a total Sunni Arab population of five million). That's four percent of all Sunni Arabs, whose main job was not fighting foreign invaders, but keeping the other 80 percent of the population under control. Counting reserve officers and NCOs who also received payments, and the majority of civil service jobs that were reserved for Sunni Arabs, you can see how important Saddam was to Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Saddam provided jobs, or some regular income, for about half of all adult Sunni Arab males. These guys were not particularly well trained fighters, but they were loyal. Many are still fighting to regain the good old days.

The current army has been much more carefully selected and trained. Most of the troops, especially the officers and NCOs, are Shia Arabs, with a large Kurdish majority. Many of these had never served as officers and had to be trained from scratch. The Iraqi national police is larger than it's ever been, with about 165,000 men (and some women) in uniform. These people are not as well trained as the soldiers. But a portion of the police, about 26,000 of them, are trained as SWAT, riot control and counter-terrorism forces. There is also a forensics organization, with 4,000 people. Think "Baghdad: CSI."

There is a border guard, with 28,000 men, which is more than three times larger than it was during Saddam's time. There is also an elite force of 500 VIP bodyguards, trained by foreign security firms and pretty good. There are also about 100,000 security guards looking after infrastructure (oil, water, gas, electricity) and another 100,000 Kurdish militiamen who, are technically part of the Iraqi armed forces (and are paid as such). Many of these have received training from American instructors, and have been quite successful in keeping things quiet up north.

There is a growing force of Sunni Arab para-military troops, who are managed by tribal leadership. These men have not received much recent training (although most of the older ones served in Saddams military or police force), but know how to use small arms (rifles and pistols), and are good at defending their own neighborhoods.

Over $20 billion has been spent to train Iraqi security forces so far, and a lot of it was wasted. But Saddam wasted a lot more. The corruption in Iraq is an ancient problem, and in the last few years of Saddam's rule, the stealing was rampant and actually getting worse. Many current soldiers and cops are simply carrying on in the "traditional" Iraqi way.

In addition to the official security forces, there are several large unofficial militia forces. The Mahdi Army (run by the young Mr Sadr), and the Badr Brigade (run by some pro-Iranian fellows) can put over 10,000 armed men on the street. These two outfits can more accurately be thought of as criminal gangs with political aspirations. There are many more criminal gangs, some with hundreds of gunmen, and with an aggregate strength approaching 100,000.

Among the many Iraqi traditions that are still practiced includes kicking back part of your salary and not having to show up for work (except in emergencies), so you can hold another job. It's also common for criminals or militiamen to join the army or police, and get two paychecks for one job. Double dipping is very popular, as is bribe taking and theft.

After World War II, occupied Japan and Germany had traditions of honest and efficient civil service to fall back on. Iraq has much less savory traditions, ones that ought to be eliminated. But traditions are not so easy to change, as everyone is discovering in Iraq.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close