SADDAM HUSSEIN has deployed 120,000 of his most reliable troops in three defensive circles around Baghdad in the hope of stalling an allied advance.
Satellite photographs taken last week and seen by The Sunday Times indicate Saddam is in the final stages of preparing his defences. Analysts say his aim appears to be to turn Baghdad into a Mesopotamian version of Stalingrad, the city where more than 1m Russians and Germans died in a siege during the second world war.
Fifty thousand elite Republican Guards equipped with 700 tanks have moved into Baghdad to fight for the city alongside three units of special forces totalling 45,000 men.
A further 20,000 Special Republican Guards and several thousand bodyguards have been assigned to protect the regime’s most sensitive targets.
Residents have spoken of an underground “city beneath a city” where heavy weaponry is being hidden in a vast network of tunnels, bunkers and caves.
Large pools of oil are also being prepared. Experts believe the Iraqi forces will set them ablaze in an effort to conceal tank and troop movements under a pall of dense smoke.
In an announcement last night, the Iraqi leadership put the country on a war footing, splitting it into four military districts under Saddam’s command. His son Qusay, head of the Republican Guard, will be in charge of Baghdad and parts of central Iraq.
The Adnan Tulfah Mechanised Republican Guards division moved from the northern city of Mosul to Baghdad earlier this month. It was followed last week by another division from Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. A Republican Guard tank brigade also arrived from Fallujah, west of the city. Iraqi troop positions were photographed last Wednesday by Israel’s Ofek-5 spy satellite. One image clearly showed tanks in position inside Baghdad.
Israeli and American military sources believe that if Saddam decides to fight rather than flee, he will try to draw coalition troops into a potentially punishing battle for Baghdad. The longer he can prolong messy urban street fighting, the sources say, the greater the chance of international uproar should Washington and London proceed without United Nations backing.
Reports in Washington last week suggested Saddam had moved other troops and artillery south towards Kuwait in a possible pre-emptive bid to strike at US forces before they could cross into Iraq.
Military analysts believe that he might carry the fight to the Americans, possibly even by firing chemical warheads into the coalition camps in Kuwait, when he concludes that a war is inevitable.
Satellite and other intelligence indicates that whatever diversions he attempts in the desert, Saddam will try to protect his regime behind his inner circle of Special Republican Guards in central Baghdad. All the officers are from Saddam’s home region near Tikrit. The second ring will largely comprise three T-72 tank divisions of Republican Guards.
Relatively well trained and equipped compared with the regular army, the Hammurabi, Al-Nida and Medina divisions are believed to be less likely to crumble at the first sound of an American bugle.
A third ring of mechanised and infantry divisions will guard the routes into Baghdad from north and south, and are expected to fall back quickly in the face of US firepower.
Pentagon strategists have long acknowledged that if Saddam rallied several Republican Guard divisions to the defence of Baghdad, he might be able to negate many of America’s high-tech advantages.
If US troops are forced into fighting for Baghdad street by street, “all our advantages of command and control, technology and mobility, are, in part, given up”, said retired General Joseph Hoar, the US commander in the Middle East after the first Gulf war.
US officials remain hopeful Saddam’s defences will prove no more effective than they did a decade ago. They are sceptical about whether Iraqis troops will stay loyal after an invasion.But stiffer than expected resistance would be likely to provoke a siege of Baghdad, for which the Pentagon has also prepared. US officials believe that by cutting off water, food, electricity and communications, they would not need to wait long for surrender.