Many inside and outside the U.S. government believed for good reasons that Saddam's hold on power was brittle. They remembered how Iraqi soldiers surrendered en mass to coalition forces in the early days of the ground offensive during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. If anything, 13 years of sanctions should have left the Iraqi military in worse condition. Moreover, the experts understandably felt that Saddam's repressive rule had left his regime deeply unpopular among Iraqis.
Arab experts say that two factors may explain why the Iraqis nonetheless put up strong resistance. First, Saddam's control over the military actually increased over the past decade. Due to budget constraints, the size of the armed forces has declined from some 1 million troops before Gulf War I to some 400,000 today. That enabled Saddam to increase the density of his tribal kin in the officer corps and thus significantly strengthen cohesion.
The other factor is that Saddam may have succeeded to some extent in portraying the war to Iraqis as a colonial intervention aimed at weakening Iraq. Arab experts say that Saddam's arguments won some acceptability in part because of the Bush administration's support for hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and because of its determination to attack Iraq despite the resumption of U.N. weapons inspections.
"Personally, I was astonished," retired Egyptian Maj. Gen. Mohammed Kadry Said said when I asked him about about the Iraqi resistance. Said, a leading Arab analyst of the 1991 Gulf War, says the signs point to difficulties ahead in the Battle of Baghdad. "I can't say if it will take five days or five weeks," he told me. "But it will not be an easy job."
As Said agrees, the fall of Saddam probably remains a matter of time, given the overwhelming imbalance of forces and the Bush administration's strong resolve to change Iraq's regime. But Saddam's personal survival and the surprising determination of Iraqis to fight raises the specter that in winning the Battle of Baghdad, the U.S. will lose the war for Iraqi and Arab hearts and minds.
In his speech Monday, Saddam made it clear that his last line of defense would be a kind of Arab Stalingrad, a siege of Baghdad in which Iraqi defenders would inflict large numbers of American casualties and draw out the conflict to maximize Arab and world sympathy for Iraq's plight. Defeating Saddam in such a scenario would be a nightmare for Washington's Arab allies and for the Bush administration as well. If the Battle of Baghdad is bloody and long, the regime that replaces Saddam's will be winning power through the barrels of American guns. The dream was that the Iraqi army, either in a coup or an uprising widely supported by the Iraqi people, would take a leading role in changing the regime in Baghdad. That would enable the U.S. to be seen less as occupiers and more as facilitators of Iraq's liberation.
Practical problems could spring up immediately. If the Iraqi army fights to the death, the fall of a regime dominated by Sunni Muslims will leave a vacuum that only U.S. forces could fill. That could make the Day After rebuilding of Iraq for the U.S. much more difficult, dangerous and drawn out. The worst-case scenario is a civil war, with America caught in the middle as Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and possibly Turkish and Iranian forces, scramble for power in post-Saddam Iraq.
Another part of the nightmare is what the Battle of Baghdad and its aftermath will do to public opinion in the Arab world. Arabs will not be sad to see the end of Saddam, given the multiple disasters he has brought the region. But for many a change of regime achieved with American military power and in defiance of the world will fan fears that the U.S. is bent on colonial-style domination of the Middle East. The worst-case scenario here is that in eliminating Saddam the Bush administration actually creates more Osama bin Ladens.
Favorable Arab opinion of the U.S. was in serious decline before the war began, fostering an anti-American climate in the Middle East that encourages rather than discourages more extremism. Arabs were upset that the Bush administration has not done more to end the 55-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were also bitter feelings left by September 11, when many in the Middle East felt that Americans were blaming the religion of Islam or Arabs generally for the crimes of Muslim extremists. Resentments seem likely to harden with the Battle of Baghdad, especially if it becomes the "Battle of Destiny" that Saddam is promising. As an Arab official said when I asked him over the weekend how things looked so far, "It's too early to tell, but the bombing of Baghdad is leaving a sour taste."
"The outcome of the war is known," an Arab diplomat told me after Saddam's speech on Monday. "America will be victorious. But at what cost?" He wasn't referring to the $74.7 billion tab that the Bush adminstration wants the U.S. taxpayer to provide.