CAIRO, Egypt – Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard was beaten by the U.S. military in the 1991 Gulf War, bruised by sanctions ever since and battered by U.S. and British strikes in recent days.
But Saddam's best-equipped, best-trained and most trusted force was still expected to fiercely defend Baghdad -- whether motivated by pride, fear or loyalty to the Iraqi leader.
Divisions of the Republican Guard, which is commanded by Saddam's son Qusai, have been redeployed around Baghdad from camps in northern and southern Iraq to await a major ground offensive by American troops, analysts and Iraqi Kurdish opposition leaders said Monday.
Although much of the U.S.-led troops' attention thus far has focused on the Baath Party militia and Saddam's Fedayeen, irregular fighters who have clashed with coalition troops in ambushes and fake surrenders, the Western allies could soon confront the Republican Guard head-on. Most dangerous and most likely to fight to the death are the Special Republican Guard -- the guard's most loyal and best-trained units.
The guard's membership was once estimated at 80,000, but some experts believe the number has dropped dramatically since the 1991 Gulf War. Nearly 100,000 U.S. fighters are in Iraq, supported by about 200,000 others in the region.
Retired Egyptian Gen. Hossam Sweilim said the guard was not expected to play an important role until fighting for Baghdad begins. The southern front line is about 50 miles from Baghdad, and the U.S.-led invasion force has already engaged the guard in preliminary fighting.
"He [Saddam] will not move his precious assets of loyal men to be slaughtered by A-10 bombers and Apache helicopters," Sweilim told The Associated Press in an interview. "He is keeping them until doomsday."
Adel Murad, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said Saddam has pulled almost all Republican Guard units from northern Iraq, where the U.S. military is believed to be preparing a northern front in its onslaught against Baghdad.
"It seems that he needs them in Baghdad more than in Kirkuk and Mosul," Murad said in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Sulaimaniyah.
A senior official at U.S. Central Command said there may be a "layered defense" of the guard around Baghdad.
"You have to get through the Republican Guard outer cordon, and then you've got the inner defense to deal with," said the official. Additional guard troops would likely be inside the city to mount "a harder defense," the official said.
The guard has six divisions: Medina, Baghdad and Adnan, usually arrayed to the north of the capital, and Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Nida, stationed to the south.
On Monday, U.S. troops said they captured several dozen Nebuchadnezzar division soldiers. A military source, who insisted on anonymity, said other guard divisions also were south of the capital -- the Medina division near Karbala, the Baghdad division around Kut -- and Hammurabi troops were headed south as reinforcements.
The Republican Guard, founded in 1980 to protect Saddam's regime, has no trouble finding volunteers -- a recruit's monthly salary is about $40, compared with $5 for a newly appointed Iraqi civil servant with a college degree. Benefits include gifts of land and extra food, along with free health care and education for their children.
"They were chosen on the basis of their loyalty to Saddam," said Ephraim Kam of Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, who has written extensively about the Iraqi army. "As long as there is no guarantee that Saddam will collapse, they are afraid that he will stay in power and punish them."
Kam noted that while some even in the Republican Guard may want to depose Saddam, it would be humiliating to trade him for a foreign occupier.
Coalition planes have targeted guard positions in and around Baghdad in preparation for the war's likely decisive battle. The intention was to force the guard out of their holes and bunkers, creating easier targets for the U.S. warplanes and generally softening up their units.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said airstrikes have reduced some guard units to less than half their prewar capacity.
That capacity was already greatly diminished, said Ian Kemp, news editor of Jane's Defense Weekly published in England.
The guard's eight divisions were cut to six after the 1991 Gulf War. Kemp said each of the divisions once boasted about 11,000 troops, but that number stood at about 8,000 at the start of the U.S. bombing in March.
Most of the guard's equipment, such as T-72 tanks, was bought from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Sanctions imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait have made it difficult for Iraq to upgrade its arsenal, but the guard gets the best of what Saddam has.
The Republican Guard is thought to have 400 main battle tanks, about a third of what it had at the time it led Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Other equipment had been similarly devastated, Kemp said.
An example of how the guard sank to that state: When Medina fought the American 1st Armored Division near Basra during the 1991 Gulf War, it lost 61 tanks and 34 armored personnel carriers in less than an hour.