Iraq's first conflict in the Cold War era was the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Deployed in western Jordan and fighting in Palestine alongside Jordanians whose training and organization were similar, Iraqi troops did not fare well. The Iraqi force, which eventually grew to about 15,000 men, proved adequate in defensive situations but performed poorly otherwise. One strength was a high standard of unit cohesion that served it well when it was under attack but that it could not translate into efficacious offensive action.
Following the 1948 conflict, the Iraqi government, then still a kingdom, signed the 1955 anticommunist Baghdad Pact, a military alliance that included the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran. Iraq assumed an active role in this organization until its departure in 1959.
In 1958 all British forces left Iraq (although they had effectively ceded their air bases in the country in 1955 with the signing of the Baghdad Pact). This departure marked the end of British involvement and influence in Iraqi military affairs, a relationship dating back to 1919. That same year, a military coup resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy, a change in government, and a significant shift in foreign policy that now tilted heavily toward the Soviet Union. Not long after the change in government, new defensive arrangements resulted in the Iraqis receiving military equipment, including tanks and airplanes, and advisors from the Soviet Union.
During 1961–1970, the Iraqi military was engaged in the suppression of Kurdish rebels in what has been referred to as the First Kurdish War. There was no Iraqi participation in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Iraqis did, however, participate in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Fighting mainly on the Golan Heights, their performance has been cited as the worst of any of Israel's opponents in that conflict.
In the 1980s the Iraqi military fought two wars. The first began in September 1980 when Iraqi forces attacked Iran. In the same decade, Iraqi government forces fought an internal war in which they brutally suppressed the Kurds in what has been called the Second Kurdish War. Both wars were notable for the extensive use of chemical weapons, in one case against an external enemy and in another case against a domestic civilian population.
In terms of equipment and basic military doctrine, the Iraqis were obviously tied to the Soviets, their mentors and suppliers. During the war with Iran, however, they were aided significantly by American intelligence (mostly through aerial reconnaissance photos) that supported strategic planning and target identification. In 1988, after eight long years of fighting, the Iraqis restored the status quo ante bellum with Iran, although this result can be attributed more to Iranian exhaustion rather than Iraqi brilliance. Even though the Iran-Iraq War wrought significant destruction on Iraqi infrastructure and civilian centers, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein believed that his forces had been battle-hardened and were quite formidable at war's end.
On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Iraq's armed forces were quite large and, on paper, very impressive. Only two years away from its war with Iran, the Iraqi Army boasted approximately 900,000 soldiers, almost 6,000 tanks, 5,000 armored personnel carriers, and nearly 4,000 pieces of artillery. This force was, however, easily and decisively defeated in a one hundred–hour ground offensive during Operation desert storm in February 1991. Despite its impressive numbers going into the war, the Iraqi military establishment performed very poorly. It was plagued by outdated and substandard equipment, generally poor leadership, low morale, and little unit cohesiveness. In fact, many Iraqi soldiers chose to desert or surrender rather than face the brunt of a massive, well-trained, and technologically advanced American-led multinational contingent of 500,000 soldiers.
Robert N. Stacy
Krosney, Herbert. Deadly Business: Legal Deals and Outlaw Weapons; The Arming of Iran and Iraq, 1975 to the Present. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.; O'Ballance, Edgar. The Gulf War. London: Brassey's, 1988.; Pollack, Kenneth M. Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948–1991. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.