Standing in what was once a grove of date palms, Omar Khalidi stares at the huge crater, easily 20 feet deep and 40 feet across. Had he arrived a few minutes sooner one night earlier this month, it could have been his grave. Beyond it is a missile launcher, now a hulk of melted metal.
That and a couple of dozen other bombed-out vehicles are the remnants of his Republican Guard surface-to-surface missile unit, one that was hit hard a few nights before U.S. Army troops seized Baghdad and toppled the government of Saddam Hussein.
"We were surprised when they [the U.S. pilots] discovered this place," said Khalidi, 28, a Republican Guard captain from a military family. It was late at night, a strong sandstorm was blowing, the vehicles were hidden under the trees, and the soldiers thought they were safe, he said. But two enormous bombs and a load of cluster bombs hit their targets on a tract of agricultural land in the Sabaa Abkar ("Seven Virgins") area of northern Baghdad, killing six members of Khalidi's unit and destroying much of their equipment.
"This affected the morale of the soldiers, because they were hiding and thought nobody could find them," he said. "Some soldiers left their positions and ran away. When the big bombs hit their target, some of the vehicles just melted. And the effect of the cluster bombs was even greater, because they covered a larger area."
How did U.S. forces know to bomb the tree-studded tract between the Qanat al Jaysh ("Army Canal") and the Tigris River? "Most of the commanders were sure it was through spies, because it was impossible to find through satellite or aircraft," Khalidi said. "Even if you drove by it, you couldn't find it."
In the aftermath of defeat by a U.S. invasion force that took three weeks to capture the capital, it is evident that even senior Iraqi military leaders failed to grasp the technological prowess that they were up against.
U.S. air power, combined with the lack of any Iraqi air defense capability, proved devastating not only to military equipment, but to the will to fight of soldiers and officers alike.
In addition, the strategy employed by the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division of sending a tank column barreling through Baghdad on what commanders called a "thunder run" -- a demonstration of U.S. might on the eve of the thrust into the heart of the capital -- achieved its intended result, shocking Iraqi leaders and weakening their resolve.
The accounts of Khalidi and other officers also make it clear that military morale began eroding long before the first U.S. troops crossed the Kuwaiti border on March 20. Compounding the problems of low morale and poor leadership -- the Republican Guard was led by Saddam Hussein's youngest son, Qusay, a civilian with no military experience -- was a culture of self-deception in which soldiers and officers consistently lied to one another about everything from the condition of their equipment to the presence of U.S. forces inside Baghdad.
"There has been practically no air defense since 1991," when Iraq was defeated in the Persian Gulf War and forced to withdraw from Kuwait, said Gen. Ghanem Abdullah Azawi, an engineer in the Iraqi army's air defense command. "Nobody rebuilt it. We didn't receive any new weapons." TV broadcasts boasting of scientists' modifications to Iraqi air defense missiles were "lies, all lies," he said. "People were lying to Saddam, and Saddam was believing them or deceiving himself."
Whenever anyone would ask about the state of their equipment, "we would always say, 'very good,' " Khalidi said. "It was all lies, because if you told the truth . . . you'd be in trouble. . . . One lied to the other from the first lieutenant up until it reached Saddam. Even Saddam Hussein was lying to himself."
In the end, the Republican Guard's failure to put up more of a fight left many Iraqis believing that there must have been some kind of deal between the U.S. military and commanders of the elite force that formerly fielded as many as 10 divisions.
"I think there was something fishy going on," Khalidi said, "some kind of contact between the Americans and the Iraqi commanders."
A man who said he belonged to Saddam's Fedayeen, a militia loyal to the former president, expressed anger and surprise that the Iraqi regular army and the Republican Guard did not prevent U.S. forces from capturing Baghdad.
"Why didn't they stop them?" asked the former militiaman, who declined to give his name. "They were supposed to fight the Americans. Till now, I am surprised, and all the officers are surprised."
But Azawi, the air defense general, said there was a simpler explanation for the reluctance to fight.
"The army didn't believe in it," he said, "because it wasn't a war, it was suicide." As senior army commanders saw it, "this war has no result, only death," he said. "Why should we fight to save Saddam? That's why most of the commanders told their soldiers not to fight, just withdraw."
An army colonel who gave his name only as Ghassan attributed the defeat in large part to the Iraqis' inability to move troops and equipment because of devastating U.S. air power, combined with the disruption of communications among commanders.
With the U.S. forces initially employing a strategy of avoiding Iraqi troop concentrations as they raced north to Baghdad, Ghassan said, Qusay Hussein ordered three Republican Guard divisions to maneuver into position to oppose the advance. But the divisions were essentially destroyed by airstrikes when they were still about 30 miles from their destinations south of Baghdad, said Ghassan, a member of the army's general staff.
"This affected the morale of the troops," he said. "The Iraqi will to fight was broken outside Baghdad."
One of those Republican Guard divisions, the Medina al Munawara, or Medina the Luminous, had been targeted for destruction by the 3rd Infantry. U.S. commanders planned to send the division's M1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles sweeping west of Karbala, then east across the Euphrates River to engage the Medina Division from behind as it braced for an attack from the south.
The annihilation of the division that was supposedly Hussein's pride and joy, U.S. commanders thought, could trigger his downfall without the need for U.S. ground forces to fight their way into Baghdad.
But before elements of the 3rd Infantry got into position to launch their main assault, the Medina Division had disintegrated. Repeated heavy airstrikes, rocket barrages and an attack across the Euphrates by the 3rd Infantry's 1st Brigade had rendered it "combat ineffective."
"We never really found any cohesive unit of any brigade of any Republican Guard division," said Col. William F. Grimsley, the 1st Brigade commander. What his soldiers encountered, he said, was a mixture of Baath Party fanatics, paramilitary fighters and members of different Republican Guard divisions, including the Nebuchadnezzar, the Adnan and the Medina.
In a lengthy interview, Khalidi, the Republican Guard captain, said he tried to keep his hopes up as he moved his unit's missiles -- obsolete FROG-7 rockets purchased from the Soviet Union beginning in 1975 -- around Baghdad to hide them from U.S. troops. Sometimes the rockets would be moved in food trucks while the military trailers that normally hauled them were used as decoys, Khalidi said.
According to Khalidi, morale among the Republican Guard units rose when the regular army's 45th Brigade, bolstered by poorly trained militiamen of the Al Quds militia, put up stiffer-than-expected resistance at Nasiriyah, battling U.S. Marines there for 15 days.
"We thought that if this Al Quds army could resist for 15 days . . . we could do so much more," he said. "We would destroy the Americans, and then we would be proud."
The unit's spirits soared once more when U.S. troops attacked Baghdad's international airport and ran into resistance. Khalidi said the Iraqi military's official report of the battle, which he believed, described a glorious victory. The Iraqi counterattack had destroyed about 80 tanks and other vehicles, killed 400 U.S. soldiers and taken 200 prisoners, the report said.
So it came as a shock when, the next day, the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade staged its "thunder run" of tanks through southern Baghdad.
"It was just as if that last battle had no effect," Khalidi said. "It was a very big shock. Everyone was surprised that a military force could pass through all the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard forces surrounding the [presidential palaces], and everyone became afraid." With the forays into Baghdad came "unimaginably heavy bombing," including the use of low-flying A-10 Thunderbolt II tank-killer planes, Khalidi said.
"After it was all over, we knew [the airport counterattack report] was an exaggeration," he said.
In fact, according to Grimsley, the 1st Brigade lost 14 killed and 38 wounded in the entire campaign.
"In the end, when [U.S. troops] entered Baghdad, everything was messed up," Khalidi said. "There were no orders. We didn't know where the commanders went. We didn't know what to do. So everyone just went home."
But the demise of what was once the world's fourth-largest army has not been easy to overcome.
"Every officer is angry and sad," Khalidi said, his eyes welling with tears. "We were so sad when we saw all our weapons on the street and our tanks burning. . . . We are angry and blaming Saddam for putting the Iraqi army in this position. A professional army doesn't like to lose."