But while the Republican Guard gets the best Iraq has, it's believed to be the best of very little. Iraq's army is seen as poorly equipped after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and more than a decade of trade sanctions imposed because of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization that compiles data on military forces, estimates the Republican Guard has 50,000 men. The force was once open only to young men from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, but expanded recruiting during the Iran-Iraq War.
Experts say new Republican Guard recruits receive a monthly salary of about $40, compared to $5 for a newly appointed Iraqi civil servant with a college degree. They also get plots of land, extra food, and free health care and education for their children.
In the 1991 Gulf War, one of the Guard's most battle-hardened units, the Medina al-Munawara — "Medina the Luminous," named for the Saudi holy city — lost 61 tanks and 34 armored personnel carriers in less than an hour of fighting against the American 1st Armored Division near Basra.
Medina was quickly reorganized after the Gulf War debacle and in 1997, it was assigned to protect Baghdad.
Its brigades took positions in Al-Taji and Al-Rashdiya, north of the Iraqi capital. In mid-September, U.S. satellites detected two Medina brigades heading for new locations less vulnerable to U.S. attack.
While on the move south of Baghdad this week, the U.S. Army's Third Division engaged the Medina al-Munawara in a battle described by U.S. officials as the biggest of the war.
U.S. military officials said hundreds of Guards died in the attack. American tanks overpowered the Republican Guard troops, who were armed with decaying T-72 and T-62 Russian tanks. No American casualties were reported, though two tanks were lost.
On Wednesday, a key question was whether the Republican Guard troops would make the first move by coming out of their dug-in positions on the outskirts of Baghdad, either to attack or to pull back into the urban center.
Some reports from the battlefield indicated a portion of the Al Nida armored division of the Republican Guard was driving south toward U.S. forces advancing toward the Iraqi capital. Others said hundreds of suspected paramilitary forces in civilian vehicles were on the move in roughly the same direction.