By MICHAEL R GORDON
and BERNARD E. TRAINOR
As American warplanes streaked overhead two weeks after the invasion began, Lt. Gen. Raad Majid al-Hamdani drove to Baghdad for a crucial meeting with Iraqi leaders. He pleaded for reinforcements to stiffen the capital's defenses and permission to blow up the Euphrates River bridge south of the city to block the American advance.
But Saddam Hussein and his small circle of aides had their own ideas of how to fight the war. Convinced that the main danger to his government came from within, Mr. Hussein had sought to keep Iraq's bridges intact so he could rush troops south if the Shiites got out of line.
General Hamdani got little in the way of additional soldiers, and the grudging permission to blow up the bridge came too late. The Iraqis damaged only one of the two spans, and American soldiers soon began to stream across.
The episode was just one of many incidents, described in a classified United States military report, other documents and in interviews, that demonstrate how Mr. Hussein was so preoccupied about the threat from within his country that he crippled his military in fighting the threat from without.
Only one of his defenses — the Saddam Fedayeen — proved potent against the invaders. They later joined the insurgency still roiling Iraq, but that was largely by default, not design.
Ever vigilant about coups and fearful of revolt, Mr. Hussein was deeply distrustful of his own commanders and soldiers, the documents show.
He made crucial decisions himself, relied on his sons for military counsel and imposed security measures that had the effect of hobbling his forces. He did that in several ways:
¶The Iraqi dictator was so secretive and kept information so compartmentalized that his top military leaders were stunned when he told them three months before the war that he had no weapons of mass destruction, and they were demoralized because they had counted on hidden stocks of poison gas or germ weapons for the nation's defense.
¶He put a general widely viewed as an incompetent drunkard in charge of the Special Republican Guard, entrusted to protect the capital, primarily because he was considered loyal.
¶Mr. Hussein micromanaged the war, not allowing commanders to move troops without permission from Baghdad and blocking communications among military leaders.
The Fedayeen's operations were not shared with leaders of conventional forces. Republican Guard divisions were not allowed to communicate with sister units. Commanders could not even get precise maps of terrain near the Baghdad airport because that would identify locations of the Iraqi leader's palaces.
Much of this material is included in a secret history prepared by the American military of how Mr. Hussein and his commanders fought their war. Posing as military historians, American analysts interrogated more than 110 Iraqi officials and military officers, treating some to lavish dinners to pry loose their secrets and questioning others in a detention center at the Baghdad airport or the Abu Ghraib prison. United States military officials view the accounts as credible because many were similar. In addition, more than 600 captured Iraqi documents were reviewed.
Overseen by the Joint Forces Command, an unclassified version of the study is to be made public soon. A classified version was prepared in April 2005. Titled "Iraqi Perspectives on Operation Iraqi Freedom, Major Combat Operations," the study shows that Mr. Hussein discounted the possibility of a full-scale American invasion.
"A few weeks before the attacks Saddam still thought the U.S. would not use ground forces," Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, told American interrogators. "He thought they would not fight a ground war because it would be too costly to the Americans."
Despite the lopsided defeat his forces suffered during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, Mr. Hussein did not see the United States as his primary adversary. His greater fear was a Shiite uprising, like the one that shook his government after the 1991 war.
His concern for the threats from within interfered with efforts to defend against an external enemy, as was evident during a previously unknown review of military planning in 1995. Taking a page out of the Russian playbook, Iraqi officers suggested a new strategy to defend the homeland. Just as Russia yielded territory to defeat Napoleon and later Hitler's invading army, Iraq would resist an invading army by conducting a fighting retreat. Well-armed Iraqi tribes would be like the Russian partisans. Armored formations, including the Republican Guard, would assume a more modest role.
Mr. Hussein rejected the recommendation. Arming local tribes was too risky for a government that lived in fear of a popular uprising.
While conventional military planning languished, Mr. Hussein's focus on internal threats led to an important innovation: creation of the Fedayeen paramilitary forces. Equipped with AK-47's, rocket propelled grenades and small-caliber weapons, one of their primary roles was to protect Baath Party headquarters and keep the Shiites at bay in the event of a rebellion until more heavily equipped Iraqi troops could crush them.
Controlled by Uday Hussein, a son of the Iraqi leader, the Fedayeen and other paramilitary forces were so vital to the survival of the government that they "drained manpower" that would otherwise have been used by Iraq's army, the classified report says.
Mr. Hussein was also worried about his neighbor to the east. Like the Bush administration, Mr. Hussein suspected Iran of developing nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Each year the Iraqi military conducted an exercise code-named Golden Falcon that focused on defense of the Iraq-Iran border.
The United States was seen as a lesser threat, mostly because Mr. Hussein believed that Washington could not accept significant casualties. In the 1991 war, the United States had no intention of taking Baghdad. President George H. W. Bush justified the restraint as prudent to avoid the pitfalls of occupying Iraq, but Mr. Hussein concluded that the United States was fearful of the military cost.
Mr. Hussein's main concern about a possible American military strike was that it might prompt the Shiites to take up arms against the government. "Saddam was concerned about internal unrest amongst the tribes before, during or after an attack by the U.S. on Baghdad," Mr. Aziz told his interrogators. Other members of Mr. Hussein's inner circle thought that if the Americans attacked, they would do no more than conduct an intense bombing campaign and seize the southern oil fields.
Steps to Avoid War
Mr. Hussein did take some steps to avoid provoking war, though. While diplomatic efforts by France, Germany and Russia were under way to avert war, he rejected proposals to mine the Persian Gulf, fearing that the Bush administration would use such an action as an excuse to strike, the Joint Forces Command study noted.
In December 2002, he told his top commanders that Iraq did not possess unconventional arms, like nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, according to the Iraq Survey Group, a task force established by the C.I.A. to investigate what happened to Iraq's weapons programs. Mr. Hussein wanted his officers to know they could not rely on poison gas or germ weapons if war broke out. The disclosure that the cupboard was bare, Mr. Aziz said, sent morale plummeting.
To ensure that Iraq would pass scrutiny by United Nations arms inspectors, Mr. Hussein ordered that they be given the access that they wanted. And he ordered a crash effort to scrub the country so the inspectors would not discover any vestiges of old unconventional weapons, no small concern in a nation that had once amassed an arsenal of chemical weapons, biological agents and Scud missiles, the Iraq survey group report said.
Mr. Hussein's compliance was not complete, though. Iraq's declarations to the United Nations covering what stocks of illicit weapons it had possessed and how it had disposed of them were old and had gaps. And Mr. Hussein would not allow his weapons scientists to leave the country, where United Nations officials could interview them outside the government's control.
Seeking to deter Iran and even enemies at home, the Iraqi dictator's goal was to cooperate with the inspectors while preserving some ambiguity about its unconventional weapons — a strategy General Hamdani, the Republican Guard commander, later dubbed in a television interview "deterrence by doubt."
That strategy led to mutual misperception. When Secretary of State Colin L. Powell addressed the Security Council in February 2003, he offered evidence from photographs and intercepted communications that the Iraqis were rushing to sanitize suspected weapons sites. Mr. Hussein's efforts to remove any residue from old unconventional weapons programs were viewed by the Americans as efforts to hide the weapons. The very steps the Iraqi government was taking to reduce the prospect of war were used against it, increasing the odds of a military confrontation.
Even some Iraqi officials were impressed by Mr. Powell's presentation. Abd al-Tawab Mullah Huwaish, who oversaw Iraq's military industry, thought he knew all the government's secrets. But Bush administration officials were so insistent that he began to question whether Iraq might have prohibited weapons after all. "I knew a lot, but wondered why Bush believed we had these weapons," he told interrogators after the war, according to the Iraq Survey Group report.