Bed, Ba’ath, and Beyond, part 2: War Is a Racket

Happy Hallowen! Today I’m very pleased to bring you the second part of Travis Haycraft’s two-part series on Saddam Hussein’s military buildup in Iraq. Part one took us through the 1970s, leading up to the Iran-Iraq War, and today’s piece looks at how the war both affected and was affected by the military machine Saddam built. There are lessons here for Western leaders who like to make a buck by dumping their military hardware on violently expansionist/interventionist Middle Eastern autocracies–not that I’m thinking of anybody specific here–though I’m a little pessimistic about the chances that anybody in authority wants to learn them.

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by Travis Haycraft

While Iraq’s military expansion prior to 1980 was certainly incredible, it paled in comparison to the extraordinary growth and development that occurred during the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War and the immediate post-war period.

The war years saw Iraq’s indigenous design and production capacity grow to include complex and highly advanced conventional and unconventional weapons programs, which helped bring the war to an end with a return to the pre-war status quo. In 1990, Iraq stood poised on the brink of joining the United States and other superpowers as a state capable of meeting all of its own arms requirements domestically, from the most basic ammunition to complicated ballistic missile systems.

Within weeks of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, it became clear that the war was not going to be a quick and easy fight. As the war dragged on it evolved into an attritional meat grinder and strategic stalemate. Unexpected failures within Iraqi forces and the surprising skill and tenacity of the Iranian armed forces combined to make the war a grueling and costly affair.

As tank losses mounted, the Iraqi arms procurement program looked to Warsaw Pact states to provide replacements. While the Soviets had embargoed arms sales to Iraq at the start of the war, several other Warsaw Pact states produced the same equipment and began selling to Baghdad. Poland, for example, began deliveries to Iraq in 1982 with a shipment of two hundred and fifty advanced T-72M tanks.

China also capitalized on the Iraqi market. The Chinese produced versions of several early Cold War Soviet tank models, most notably the T-55 and T-62, which the Chinese dubbed the Type 59 and Type 69, respectively. By the 1980s these tanks were largely obsolete by Soviet standards, but had become the vehicles of choice for Soviet proxies in conflicts from Angola to Vietnam. During the war, China would export nearly two thousand of these tanks to Iraq. Iraqi armor units often abandoned Chinese-made tanks if they were broken down or damaged, as it was cheaper to simply buy a new one than bring the damaged vehicle back for repair.

Wreckage of an Iraqi T-62 tank Iran’s Khuzestan province (Wikimedia Commons | Hamed Saber)

French military aid, which had begun in small amounts in the mid-1970s, began making its presence felt on the battlefield, albeit not yet on a large scale. While the Mirage jets had not become a relevant factor in the skies, French electronic warfare equipment (ground surveillance radars, radio decryption technology, etc.), such as the RASIT ground surveillance radar system first delivered to Iraq in 1976, allowed Iraqi reconnaissance and intelligence units to detect Iranian troop movements and plans, giving Iraqi troops a chance to prepare accordingly.

With the Iraqi offensive failing, Iran launched a counteroffensive into Iraq in 1983 that proved a diplomatic coup for Saddam, as the Soviets and Americans both feared an Iranian victory and so gave carte blanche to Iraqi arms procurement agents.

Saddam’s plan for military supremacy had always included the possibility of unconventional weapons technology. His plan to obtain nuclear weapons was put on hold in 1981 when Israeli jets bombed the reactor the French had been building in the Anbar desert. So chemical weapons were the logical next step, as they were far easier to develop on a large scale for a relatively technologically underdeveloped country like Iraq. Construction on a chemical weapons plant north of Baghdad began in 1981 with support from West German company Thyssen Rheinstahl Technology, and another, far larger, plant in Samarra built by Karl Kolb GmbH was producing chemical weapons on a massive scale by 1983.

These early Iraqi chemical weapons were not particularly sophisticated, producing perhaps only a twenty percent fatality rate. Iranian government sources claim that during the 1984 Khyber Operation, Iranian troops assaulting Majnoon Island in the marshes of southern Iraq were hit with forty-seven chemical air attacks, resulting in thirty-four deaths and over two thousand injuries. The failure lay in the mixture the Iraqis were using. These faults were quickly corrected, however, and by Iran’s spring 1985 Badr Operation the fatality rate increased to roughly sixty percent with a new mixture of hydrogen cyanide, mustard gas, Sarin, and Tabun.

The war continued its bloody stalemate until 1986, when Iran succeeded in capturing the Iraqi peninsula of al-Fao, effectively severing Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf. In the aftermath of Iran’s victory in al-Fao, the Soviet Union massively increased shipments of weapons to Iraq. Between 1986 and 1988, the Soviets provided about nine billion dollars’ worth of arms and technology to Iraq, including more than 2,000 tanks, 300 fighter aircraft, almost 300 surface-to-surface missiles (mostly SCUD-Bs), and thousands of pieces of heavy artillery and armored personnel vehicles.

But Saddam knew well that purchases from the Soviet Union would not be enough. It was clear that in order to effectively retaliate against Iran, the Iraqi military industrial complex needed expansion and reformation. Consequently, in January of 1987 Saddam handed control of the State Organization for Technical Industries (SOTI), the branch of the Ministry of Defense responsible for arms production and much of its procurement, to Hussein Kamil, Saddam’s cousin and former bodyguard. 

Under Kamil’s tenure at SOTI, the efficiency and capacity of Iraq’s military industry was greatly increased. The war allowed much bureaucratic red tape to be cut, and Kamil was an expert in moving a project from concept to production in record time. Kamil’s restructuring of SOTI centered around two prongs, each intended to be half of the final blow planned against Iran. The first prong was the production of basic equipment such as tanks, ammunition, and spare parts, needed to replenish Iraq’s depleted stocks of equipment and ammunition. The success of this prong depended on Iraqi industry and Iraqi skills, two areas where the effects of Saddam’s investments in the rapid and total development of the relevant aspects of Iraq became clear. The second prong in Kamil’s restructuring was the development of a long-range ballistic missile program intended to target cities deep within Iran in order to destroy Iranian civilian morale.

Iraq had in its inventory 300 SCUD-B missiles which had a range of about three hundred kilometers, well short of the nine-hundred-kilometer distance to Tehran. To develop a method to extend the range of these newly purchased missiles, Iraq worked with Brazil and France. Iraq would ship several of the Soviet missiles to Brazil where they would be disassembled and reverse engineered by Iraqi, Brazilian, and French engineers. The team eventually concluded that by repurposing parts from some of the missiles, the range could be extended but at the cost of cutting by a third the size of Iraq’s SCUD-B arsenal. In effect, three hundred short range missiles could be turned into two hundred long-range missiles. Saddam dubbed the new modified missile the al-Hussein, and tests showed it had double the range of the original SCUD-B produced by the Soviets. Iraqi engineers were able to perform further modifications, producing a missile that could reach up to nine hundred kilometers and had even greater accuracy than the al-Hussein. They dubbed the new missile the al-Abbas.

Iraq’s final counteroffensive began with the deployment of the modified SCUD-B missiles. For months in early 1988, three hundred missiles were launched at targets in Iran. One hundred and thirty-three hit Tehran, killing hundreds and causing a general panic in the city, sending thousands of residents fleeing into the countryside. A ground assault soon followed, and the weight of the combined chemical and conventional munitions used by Iraq quickly routed Iranian forces from al-Fao, and soon after along the entire front line. Within a few short months, Iranian forces had been routed completely and Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reluctantly signed a ceasefire agreement in July of 1988.

With the war’s end, Iraq’s military industrial complex—now headed by Hussein Kamil—was booming. It employed over a hundred thousand people, and produced an enormous variety of advanced conventional and unconventional weapons, ranging from T-72M1 tanks to the Tammuz rocket booster, which could put satellites in orbit or launch a warhead up to 3000 kilometers.

Saddam wanted to share his success with the world, and in spring of 1989 hosted a massive arms exposition in Baghdad, which he called the First Baghdad International Exhibition for Military Production. Over a hundred companies from dozens of countries were in attendance. The expo opened with an incident of violence that highlighted the biting irony of its slogan, “Defense equipment for peace and prosperity,” as an Alphajet aircraft that was to be displayed at the expo and was flown by an Egyptian pilot attempted to land at the airport adjacent to the expo but miscalculated its flight path and strayed too close to the Presidential Palace. Anti-aircraft guns manned by the Iraqi Republican Guard immediately shot it down, and though the pilot and copilot survived, the damaged jet crashed into a civilian neighborhood, killing dozens.

Some of the Iraqi weapons on display were just crude amalgamations of the designs of different countries. Still other weapons seemed poorly manufactured. Despite these downsides, the fact remained that while some of the Iraqi weapons may have been paper tigers, Saddam had nonetheless built up an impressive collection of weapons and industry. Maurice Schmitt, a French general and Chief of the Defense Staff, was in attendance and was surprised at the amount of French technology on display in the Iraqi weapons. “[I] began to wonder whether we hadn’t gone a bit too far,” he remarked to a colleague. With the expo, it seemed that Iraq’s military buildup was well on its way to total success.

Saddam’s hubris, however, was to be the downfall of this newfound Iraqi power. On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait to negate Iraqi debts to the Kuwaitis as well as to “resolve” a long-standing border dispute. The resulting war and the involvement of an American-led coalition ultimately put an end to Iraq’s armament plans as American bombs destroyed the factories and laboratories from which Iraq’s military was produced.

Most of the same countries that swiftly destroyed the Iraqi army in 1991 were the same powers that happily gave Iraq billions of dollars’ worth of advanced weapons and even more billions in loans over the previous decade, knowing full well they would be used to chemically murder Iranian soldiers, bomb Iranian cities, and massacre Shiʿa and Kurds within Iraq. When British military forces were deployed to fight against Saddam’s army in Kuwait in 1990, many units were not issued desert camouflage, as just four years earlier the British government had sold those same uniforms to the Iraqi army. US President Ronald Reagan established full diplomatic relations with Saddam in 1984, at the same time as Iraqi aircraft were gassing Iranian troops by the thousands on Majnoon Island. American policy towards Iraq during the 1990s was focused, however, on preventing Iraq from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which includes chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein, once the West’s darling, had gone from geopolitical asset to geopolitical liability.

Now, nearly thirty years on from the collapse of Saddam’s military industrial complex, it is clear that while Iraq’s military heyday may be past, little has changed globally. The arms companies of the world, and the governments who facilitate their sales, have not learned their lessons from the mustard gas horrors of Majnoon Island, the muddy no-man’s-land of al-Fao, or the terror bombing of Tehran. Arms proliferation may result in temporary profit for those that take part, but the human costs are incalculable.

Travis Haycraft graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. His research interests include arms proliferation in the Middle East, with a particular focus on tanks and tank warfare. Travis is originally from New Orleans and currently works in Erbil, Iraq. Follow him on Twitter: @haycraft_travis.

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