What Ever Happened to the Republican Guard?

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ROBERT NICKELSBERG FOR TIME

WAR RELICS: A wrecked Iraqi military truck and a discarded helmet lie along a road in Kut

During their onslaught against the Republican Guard in the southern approaches to Baghdad, U.S. military commanders had grim words to describe what they were doing to the elite Iraqi forces. "I find it interesting when folks say we're softening them up," Air Force Lieut. General T. Michael Moseley, the air-war commander, said on April 5, the day the U.S. Army entered Baghdad. "We're not softening them up. We're killing them." Later on, in its assessment of the damage the U.S. had wrought, the Pentagon focused on devastation to the Guard's armor, concluding, for example, that all but two dozen of their 800 tanks had been destroyed or abandoned. But a central mystery of the war remains: What happened to the people, the thousands of Republican Guard soldiers arrayed outside Baghdad who were subjected to the full wrath of the most powerful military on earth?

TIME set out to answer that question by traversing the two rough arcs along which the Republican Guard were deployed south of Iraq's capital. Our reporters focused on seven battlefields: Hindiyah, Hillah, Kut, Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah, Suwayrah and Dawrah. They surveyed the aftermath of the fighting, inspected graveyards, visited hospitals and interviewed eyewitnesses. They also spoke to Republican Guard survivors about their escape and the fates of their comrades. The evidence that TIME's team collected indicates that relatively few members of the Republican Guard were actually killed in the fighting. According to the accounts, the Iraqi forces for the most part survived aerial bombardments by keeping their distance from their armor, which U.S. pilots targeted with great precision. Then as U.S. ground troops approached, the Republican Guard generally fled. Many of them appear to have acted on their own, motivated by fear and self-preservation. In Baghdad, according to a high-ranking Republican Guard officer interviewed by TIME, troops were actually instructed to desert. This may help explain why the members of the Special Republican Guard, deployed within Baghdad as the Iraqi regime's ultimate defenders, put up virtually no resistance to the American takeover of the city, as they felt the entire elite-forces structure collapsing around them.

Saddam Hussein must have known that the Republican Guard could not stop the advance of the U.S. military on Baghdad, but he might have imagined it could slow the onslaught. As U.S. forces swept through Iraq from Kuwait, the Iraqi command deployed four divisions—the Baghdad, Medina, Nebuchadnezzar and Hammurabi—south of the capital in two defensive arcs. The outer arc, about 100 miles long, stretched roughly from Karbala to Kut. The inner one, some 30 miles long, extended from Yusufiyah to Suwayrah. Just how many troops this involved is unclear. On paper, each of the four divisions had roughly 10,000 men, but according to U.S. intelligence, all were undermanned. Pentagon officials and outside experts estimate that the Republican Guard forces arrayed south of Baghdad that clashed with invading U.S. troops totaled somewhere between 16,000 and 24,000 men.

For the most part, the U.S. hit these forces first from the air. In many cases, drones were used to locate Iraqi armor, then bombers were called in to destroy it. Of the 28,000 bombs and missiles that American pilots dropped during the war—70% of which were smart—about half were directed against the Republican Guard. Judging from the look of the battlefields today, the bombing was largely surgical. In the open market in Mahmudiyah, five tanks were hit from the air while they were parked in alleyways so narrow that their gun turrets could not be turned. The storefront windows a few feet away were blown out, but otherwise the surrounding buildings are intact. In some cases, the Iraqis attempted to hide tanks and trucks from U.S. planes by parking them underneath freeway overpasses, and even though the vehicles were destroyed by laser-guided munitions that entered from the side, the bridges above were untouched. In other places, trucks lie demolished under scorched trees; the Iraqi soldiers apparently did not realize that palm fronds hide nothing from modern thermal-imaging devices.

These attacks surely killed some Iraqi soldiers who happened to be in or near vehicles when they were hit. But locals in the fighting zones say much of the bombed-out machinery that they came across had few or no corpses inside. Iraqi soldiers learned not to sleep near their vehicles and to construe any sign of a U.S. air raid—the appearance overhead of a drone, the sound of a plane or the sudden explosion of a nearby tank—as a prompt to take cover. In Mahmudiyah, for instance, the commander of a 150-man Republican Guard unit ordered his troops to leave their tanks in the market and prepare to confront U.S. forces on foot. "The commander—he'd be dead if he'd stayed in those tanks," says Hadi Abid, 47, a worker who watched the scene unfold from a nearby hill.

Not everyone got away. Outside Yusufiyah, five members of the Republican Guard had dug in to face G.I.s moving north. As soon as U.S. warplanes circled overhead, says eyewitness Mashan Shareef, the soldiers lost heart and bolted from their positions, but all five were killed in the bombing. Local residents buried them in shallow graves and hung their dog tags from sticks thrust into the mounds to identify them for searching relatives.

The Pentagon had made clear before fighting began that while it hoped to spare the lives of ordinary soldiers in the Iraqi army, since they would be needed to stabilize the country after the war, U.S. forces would seek to kill Republican Guard units that did not surrender. But the U.S. wielded its sword so deftly that relatively little carnage remained. The battlefields south of Baghdad are pocked with relatively few of the craters that would have been produced by the carpet bombing of masses of soldiers. Instead one finds blown-out tanks and other vehicles, usually standing alone.

The Republican Guard probably tried to keep its armor dispersed—so U.S. pilots could not destroy it efficiently—with the idea of grouping it at the last moment to face U.S. ground forces. The Iraqi troops never had that chance, since their armor was destroyed before U.S. tanks arrived. The Iraqi command's plan to bog down the Americans in ground fighting was doomed from the start, says "Karim," a colonel who spent 21 years in the Republican Guard and does not want to reveal his real name. "They forgot that we are missing air power. That was a big mistake. U.S. military technology is beyond belief."

Despite the frightening display of American air power, many Republican Guard continued to linger in their assigned areas. One motivation: under Saddam, deserters, when caught, were typically punished by execution or by having an ear cut off. The final kick that collapsed the Republican Guard, according to TIME's sources, was the approach of U.S. ground troops. In Mahmudiyah, Ali Mohammed, 50, an accountant, observed an officer ordering 20 of his men to head into town to confront the advancing Americans. As they marched forward, he stripped off his uniform, revealing civilian clothes underneath, and fled in the opposite direction. When the soldiers realized what had happened, they too turned and fled. Mohammed says he spoke to one of them later. "He said they were not fighting for the country but for the regime," says Mohammed. "He wasn't willing to risk his life for one man." In various cities, locals say soldiers who didn't have street clothes tried to buy or beg them from residents. Says Najah Mohamad, 29, a driver at the fire station in Hindiyah: "One soldier called Ali came to me and offered his AK-47 in exchange for a shirt and pants. I told him I only had the clothes I was wearing."

Karim was part of a force sent to Dawrah, 10 miles south of Baghdad, to replace about 150 Republican Guard troops who had fled. He was horrified to discover that his troops lasted less than 24 hours. "The morning after they were sent to Dawrah," he says, "they heard the U.S. had two tanks in Yusufiyah." That is seven miles away. "So they dropped their weapons, changed their clothes and ran." Out of 105 men, only four remained. "You could see the collapse on each of our faces," he recalls. Embittered, Karim and the three others returned to their homes in Baghdad. In the first Gulf War, demoralized Iraqi forces surrendered to Americans en masse in Kuwait. This time they were in their own country and simply headed home. In many cases a lack of direction prompted the Republican Guard to call it a day. "Azed," a captain who says he's too embarrassed by his performance on the battlefield to give his real name, says his unit of the Hammurabi division received an order to retreat from Suwayrah on the night of April 5, after two days of pounding by American planes. As Azed's men prepared to pull back, they waited for orders about where to regroup. But the orders never came. Their senior officers had disappeared. So Azed, along with his fellow soldiers, shed his uniform and began walking toward Baghdad, carrying a white handkerchief in his hand.

In Baghdad, according to a high-ranking officer in the Republican Guard, soldiers were even directed to give up. The officer told TIME that on April 6, three days before Baghdad fell, he was dispatched to resupply various commanders in the capital. During his rounds, he says, "I saw with my own eyes a group of high-ranking officers moving through different units, asking them to leave their arms aside and go back home." He says he saw staff colonels and staff brigadiers whom he did not recognize telling antiaircraft units "not to use weapons against enemy airplanes."

To some extent, it seems, U.S. psychological operations were effective. By dropping leaflets on Iraqi positions and calling and e-mailing commanders, the U.S. tried to convince Iraq's military that it was in their interest not to put up a fight. "As we had access to leaders, we spoke with them and said, 'You need to make a choice here,'" says U.S. Army Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, chief spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar. "Those that made the choices will have an opportunity to live another day. Those who did not did not survive the operations."

The landscape south of Baghdad bears evidence of fighting that never happened. Along the sides of roads are thousands of recently constructed earthwork bunkers, trenches and sandbagged gun emplacements, all facing south. Inspection showed that almost none have spent shell casings, cartridges, scorch marks or any of the other normal detritus of war. If they did hold soldiers at any time, the men had left before any shots were fired by or at them. In some places there are still signs of hasty departures: along the roadsides, discarded uniforms and berets; in buildings, scattered maps, manuals and gas masks.

That many Republican Guard troops had simply given up became clear to U.S. forces even as they marched toward Baghdad. For instance, the day after the Marines passed through the outskirts of Kut with unexpectedly light fighting, despite the supposed presence of the Medina division, they started running into long lines of young men walking on the road. "There is no doubt these are the Republican Guard we didn't come up against yesterday. They all have military haircuts," Marine Lieut. Colonel Bryan McCoy told a TIME correspondent that day. After U.S. forces began arresting men wearing combat boots, deserters tended to sport bare feet or cheap new sandals.

The presence of Republican Guard survivors, of course, did not preclude the possibility that thousands of their comrades were lying dead elsewhere. But the accounts of locals do not suggest a high death toll among the Republican Guard. In many places, civilian fatality rates were higher. In the temporary cemetery that Dawrah residents had dug in a grove of palm trees, there are 34 graves, but only six to 10, locals say, are for soldiers. In Mahmudiyah, Daoud Jassim, the hospital deputy director, says 50 bodies were brought to the hospital from fighting on April 3, but more than half were civilians. In Hindiyah, Najah Mohamad, a fire-truck driver who also functions as the body washer at a local Shi'ite mosque, says the bodies of nine soldiers were brought to him on April 3. They were buried behind the mosque, but seven of the plots are now open because the men's families came to disinter the deceased and take them back to their hometowns.

U.S. commanders don't seem especially bothered by the notion that large numbers of Republican Guard have escaped alive. "Many of them may, in fact, go home and rejoin society without any issues," Army Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations on the Joint Staff, said last month. Brigadier General Brooks has acknowledged that some members of the Republican Guard may return as guerrillas to harass U.S. troops. "We don't think all that's going to just disappear," he said, "but there's no way to account for how many made the decision to just walk off the battlefield and never fight again."

Those survivors who spoke to TIME are in anything but a fighting mood. They seem too occupied with absorbing their fate to plot a next move. Says Karim, the colonel: "This is very bitter. I am 39. I was brought up with Saddam's regime. I may not have liked it, but I had plans—to buy a house—and suddenly everything changed. The future is dark." Azed, the captain who ran from Suwayrah, sits in his uncle's house in Baghdad, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. "What happened shocked everyone," he says. "We had heard about the resistance from the regular forces in Basra, and so we thought that surely the Republican Guard would be even tougher. But we never fought. I am ashamed of what happened," he says, waving a hand in front of his face as if to wipe away the memory.

—With reporting by Brian Bennett/Baghdad, Jim Lacey/Hillah, Simon Robinson/Kut, Mark Thompson/ Washington and Michael Weisskopf/ Mahmudiyah