The long Iran-Iraq war from 1980-88 saw terrible losses on both sides. But when it ended the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad still had powerful forces at its disposal, the most important being the eight divisions of the Republican Guard.
Two years on, in August 1990, these elite divisions were held back during Iraq's invasion and occupation of Kuwait, which brought the regime into confrontation with a strong United States-led coalition of states. Saddam's calculation was that the Republican Guard would be needed to defend Baghdad if the Americans decided to extend the war and terminate the regime. In the event the bombardment launched in January 1991 expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait but allowed the regime enough leeway to survive. This was followed by years of economic sanctions and pressures, as well as United Nations inspections of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes.
During the 1990s, the core elements of Iraq's army were reorganised. The most loyal members of the Republican Guard were consolidated into a much smaller elite force, the Special Republican Guard, comprising four brigades - around 12,000 troops overall, compared with the original 80,000 strength of the Republican Guard. They were also known as the Golden Brigades, and drawn primarily from Iraq's Sunni minority, including many from Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Saddam was eventually overthrown in the American-led invasion of March-April 2003. The general Republican Guard, poorly equipped by western standards, was then forward-based south of Baghdad; its men were decimated by US air-force and ground-force actions, especially the use of cluster-bombs and multiple-launch rocket systems. The few journalists embedded with the US forces racing north reported carnage among these Iraqi troops.
What seemed odd at the time was that the Special Republican Guard seemed to have disappeared from view. It was later realised that they had gone to ground, melted away in the face of what would have been the impossible job of defending Baghdad. Many of them later joined the insurgency and now form part of the middle and senior ranks of Islamic State paramilitaries.
In the last years of US occupation forces a reformed Iraqi army was expensively trained, including new elite brigades from troops mostly thought to be loyal to the new government of Nouri al-Maliki and his successor Haider al-Abadi. One of the core units was drawn from the Shi’a made answerable directly to al-Maliki when he was still prime minister. These forces too, in an echo of earlier times, are known as the Golden Brigades, and if there are any forces in the Iraqi army capable of fighting the Islamic State paramilitaries, it is them.
Even so, when the Islamic State forces gained control of the city of Ramadi on 19-20 May, they did so by comprehensively defeating army units, including some from precisely these elite brigades. Moreover, The US had conducted 165 airstrikes to support the Iraqi troops at Ramadi. When the collapse came it was remarkably quick, so much so that large quantities of equipment were left behind for the Islamic State to seize and use, much as it had done in Mosul in June 2014. A Pentagon source “estimated that a half dozen tanks were abandoned, a similar number of artillery pieces, a larger number of armored personnel carriers and about 100 wheeled vehicles such as Humvees”.
The Ramadi events come at a time of efforts in Washington to sound upbeat about the war. Pentagon sources cited a special-forces raid into Syria in which a senior Islamic State leader, named as Abu Sayyaf, had been killed. Yet if the raid's aim had been to kill him then armed-drones or air-strikes would have been used, avoiding the much greater risk of sending in a strong Delta Force detachment in Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters. The raid went wrong in that it encountered strong opposition, with damage to some of the aircraft taking part, and Abu Sayyaf was killed in the firefight.
The actual aim had been to capture Abu Sayyaf, get him back to base and extract as much information from him as possible. This was because his role - as a major economic planner and manager who knew all the details of how Islamic State works - offered priceless information for the United States at a time of precious little human intelligence available on its core organisation. The failure of the main objective led the Pentagon to do what any self-respecting public relations outfit would in the circumstances, namely put out the best message possible.
This, though, doesn’t help in trying to make an objective assessment of how the war is going. What can be said is that the taking of Tikrit a couple of months ago appears to have done far less damage to Islamic State morale than was claimed at the time; and that now, the capture of Ramadi is a serious setback for the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition. Islamic State's advance on the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria is another indicator of the group's strength.
These developments present Barack Obama's administration with a hard dilemma and three unpalatable choices. The first is finally to accept that US ground troops will have to be involved in large numbers if Islamic State forces are to be defeated in Iraq. There is, though, deep fear that yet another full-scale “crusader” occupation of Iraq would increase support for Islamic State and result in inevitable casualties and kidnappings.
The second, less dramatic, option is to accept that US air power will have to be used systematically to support Shi’a militias, especially if Baghdad comes to be directly threatened. This might be more effective than supporting what is left of the Iraqi army, but working directly with Iran would be deeply unpopular with Republicans in Congress and seen as an admission of failure.
The third option is to escalate the use of air power still further and also be prepared to use special forces much more centrally and frequently. This seems the most likely route, but again there is little guarantee that it will work and it too would look all too like “mission creep”.
These are the choices facing Washington, all stemming from the events of just one weekend. The path of this war has changed, leaving western powers with ever less room for manoeuvre.