Lion of March

Lion of Babylon tank

The Lion of Babylon tank or Asad Babil (Arabic: اسد بابل) was an Iraqi-built version of the Soviet T-72 MBT (main battle tank), assembled in a factory established in the 1980s near Taji, north of Baghdad.

This project represented the most ambitious attempt by Saddam Hussein's Regime to develop an indigenous tank production, triggered in part when some Western governments imposed an embargo in order to force a negotiated end to the Iran-Iraq war.

Production History

A steel plant was in place in Taji since 1986, built by a West German company, manufacturing steel for several military uses and meeting the standards to retrofit and rebuild tanks already on duty in the Iraqi Army, such as the T-54/55 family and the T-62. But the first locally-built T-72 came off the production line in early 1989, after a license agreement was achieved with a Polish contractor to provide essential parts for assembly. The United Nations imposed an arms embargo following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, which soon limited the complex activity to the production of spare parts for the Lions and other tanks in the Iraqi arsenal.

In most aspects, the Lion of Babylon is physically identical to the basic T-72M. However, the two differ considerably, both in the quality of construction and durability of materials used. The Iraqi tank was upgraded to T-72M1A features with the addition of armor at the front and rear as protection against missile attacks (see Russian link in the Armor section).

A few examples featured a laser rangefinder for its 125 mm smoothbore main gun. American military intelligence believed some of them also featured Belgium-made thermal sights. These same sources claim the tank was also provided with a better track protection against sand and mud than the Soviet T-72, by reducing the original number of dampers. Some of them carried a crude detachable pipe device made by the Iraqis in order to use the exhausts to blow up sand or dust to dig-in the tank. It's widely known that the tank had some kind of electro-optical interference pods of Chinese origin. As secondary armament, the tank mounted either the NSV or the DShK 12.7 mm machinegun and the coaxial 7.62 mm PKT common to all models of T-72.

Combat Performance

The Asad Babil was generally credited as being the most common tank in Iraqi service during the Gulf War (1990-91), but that honor goes, in fact, to the Type 69, produced in China but widely refitted by the Iraqis. Only Republican Guard divisions were equipped with Iraqi-built T-72s.

Much to the distress of Soviet armaments designers, many of the failings of the Iraqi armies were blamed upon the original T-72, with little note that the vehicle itself was an Iraqi copy of an older export model, and nowhere near its up-to-date Soviet counterpart in capability.

Even in the hands of competent crewmen, the Lion of Babylon is utterly outclassed by the M1 Abrams and by any other contemporary Western main battle tank, as was demonstrated in both Gulf Wars. For example, a 120 mm depleted uranium (DU) APFSDS round from an M1 could kill an Asad Babil tank well beyond 3,000 m, while the effective range of a tungsten-core 125 mm shell is scarcely 1,800 m. The only chance for the Asad Babil against American tanks was to lure them to close range combat, or trying to ambush them from dug-in positions. But even in those conditions, the M1s usually prevailed, as proven in circumstances like the Battle of 73 Easting, during Desert Storm, where dozens of Iraqi MBTs were obliterated, or near Mahmoudiyah, south of Baghdad, April 3, 2003, (Iraqi Freedom) when US tanks engaged their counterparts from just 50 yards, shattering seven enemy T-72s without losses. These encounters also exposed the very poor marksmanship of the Iraqi gunners, in part due to the shortage of modern night-vision and range-finder assets, as noted in the Production History section.

Indeed, barely a dozen US vehicles were destroyed or put out of action by Iraqi tanks of any kind in the course of both 1991 war and 2003's invasion. Four of those vehicles were wheeled trucks.

Desert Storm (1991)

The ground war began on Feb 24, 1991, and lasted until Feb 27, when President George H. W. Bush declared a unilateral cease-fire, after the last Iraqi Army units were forced out from Kuwait. The Asad Babil saw action mostly with the Republican Guard Armored Division Tawakalna (Arabic: God with us), on the third day of operations. The Division was decimated by the simultaneous assault of several American armored Task Forces.

Against the M1 Abrams

At first, combat assessment researchers thought that about a dozen M1s were hit and damaged in some degree in the course of tank battles with Iraqi T-72s in 1991, but further ballistics information and radiological readings showed that six Abrams were beyond any doubt hit by FriendlyFireTab.jpg. Helicopter-launched missiles are suspected of inflicting friendly damage in another four cases.

As already mentioned, the T-72s built in Taji were technologically fifteen or more years out of date, so they could not face the latest generation of US MBTs without sustaining heavy losses. However, some sources dispute the claim that no M1A1 Abrams took damage from this Iraqi tank. Brig. Gen. Robert Scales describes an engagement at close range between advancing M1s and dug-in Lions where at least two American tanks (B-23 and D-24) were knocked out, apparently by 125 mm sabot rounds.

The battle took place before midnight, February 26, 1991, against a brigade of Tawakalna Division. The Abrams tanks belonged to TF 1-37th Armor, US 1st Armored Division, and both were struck from behind. Two more became the targets of anti-tank missiles, depicted in the ballistics report as small shaped charge munition (C-66-Assessment.jpg) in one case (C-66) and one friendly DU round C-12.gif in the other (C-12).

There was speculation about incoming friendly-fire from Apache helicopters of the US 3rd Armored Division deployed to the south, but one of the four M1s (B-23) was definitely hit by a non-depleted uranium discarding sabot shell, since no radiological trace was found. An official document (DamageSketch-b23.jpg), shows a drawing describing the projectile path right through the tank hull, defeating the armor on both sides, a kind of harm that only a large kinetic energy penetrator could make (the Hellfire missile fired from the Apaches has a HEAT (high explosive anti-tank) warhead). Had a Hellfire hit the tank, the path depicted would have shown a sharp downward angle.

This is the summary (Summary.gif) detailing Abrams B-23's damage. Note that this text mentions two rounds hitting the Abrams, the first of them (a shaped charge weapon) being probably an AGM-114 Hellfire missile blast through the rear grill doors, while the second unknown round is almost certainly that depicted in the ballistic's sketch, likely from an Asad Babil gun. The damage taken from this second hit, as is described in this report, was catastrophic. In effect, other sources hint that, besides C-12, at least another tank was penetrated by APFSDS shells.

A Delta company Abrams (D-24) was also hit by a HEAT round from an Asad Babil in the same skirmish, according to the tank commander, First Sergeant (1SG) Anthony Steede. Indeed, the D-24-91.jpg affirms that a small shaped charge ammunition struck the NBC exhaust duct, the jet passing through the compartment. The MBT lost power and hydraulic pressure, becoming a mobility kill (according to Scales, the round was a sabot). The D-24-91-b.jpg about the incident shows the D-24 loader testifying that some kind of rocket/missile hit the US tank, which supports the friendly fire theory. However, it may be that the somewhat 'slow' speed of the HEAT shell (below 900 m/s), and the trail left by the round tracer were confused with the path of an AT missile. Even during a TV documentary interview some 10 years later, Steede was adamant about the T-72 HEAT theory. The impact thrown the TC from his hatch and left the gunner seriously wounded by shrapnel. The presumed killer was quickly destroyed by sabot fire from another Delta company Abrams. The unreliability of Iraqi AT missiles and BMP's 73 mm cannon in night combat, and the projectile D-24-LOF.jpg also support the T-72's hypothesis.

Another US Army official damage assessment (DamagedByAssadBabil.gif), asserts that an unidentified Abrams suffered three non-DU impacts. Witnesses in the field claimed a T-72 was responsible. One round hit the front left turret slope with only minor damage; the two others achieved partial penetrations on the rear right side of the turret. This is the only officially documented instance of an Iraqi MBT knocking out an M1A. Even if the US tank was not destroyed, the damage was enough to send it to a maintenance depot. The report about two hits in the rear turret suggests that the duffle bags in the tank's sponson boxes were presumably set on fire. Another six M1As were allegedly hit by 125 mm tank fire in the Gulf war official report, but the impacts were largely ineffectual.

More specific details exist about another Abrams storage area catching fire from a burning T-72 as a result of combat operations in the Chronology of the XVIII Airborne Corps in Gulf War. Its bumper number was A-22, from TF 4-64. The damage was sustained during the last engagement of the Gulf War, March 2 1991, near the Rumeilah oil fields, southwest of Basra, when the 1st Brigade of the US 24th Infantry Division attacked by surprise a large retreating column of the Hammurabi elite Division, comprising some Asad Babil and APCs, which apparently broke the cease-fire. Most of the Brigade-size formation was demolished by the combined force of helicopters, A-10 attack aircraft and armored vehicle weapons.

Against the M2 Bradley

According to Atkinson and Scales, the Lions also accounted for at least three M2 Bradley IFVs during Desert Storm and left several damaged, all of them on February 26, 1991.

The Bradleys were often deployed as advanced scouts for the main armored forces. They explored the enemy lines, having been greeted by the Iraqi tank's main guns in many occasions. In return, if located within striking distance, they retaliated by firing their BGM-71 TOW antitank missiles with deadly effects, taking out even several MBTs. Most of the M2 losses were the result of this kind of mission.

Brigadier General Scales states that on the mentioned date, an M2 Bradley (ID number unknown), leading the TF 3-5th Cavalry scout platoon and commanded by a First Lieutenant Donald Murray, took a T-72 sabot round through the road wheels. This action led to the first officially reported killing of a Lion in the Division, by First Lieutenant Marty Lener's tank.

Atkinson cites a mostly fratricidal battle near Phase Line Bullet, a preestablished objective in the 3rd Armored Division way towards northern Kuwait, west of Al-Busayyah. The close-range skirmish involved Bradleys from the 4th Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment against Iraqi dismounted infantry, APCs, and T-72s of Tawakalna Division. Visibility conditions were extremely poor (less than 400 yards), due to a sandstorm combined with the fumes of burning oil wells. The Iraqis employed small arms, RPG-7s, AT-3 Sagger missiles (completely aimless in such bad weather), and direct and indirect tank and 73 mm cannon fire from their entrenched positions.

One of the American IFVs (A-36) was hit and crippled by what ballistics suggest was a 12.7 mm bullet from an Iraqi tank (though it may have been a sabot round splinter, since the M2A2 armor is able to defeat any machine gun fire up to 14.5 mm) and then shattered by a HEAT 125 mm shell after the crew evacuated the vehicle. Bradley A-35 also took some damage from a mix of ricocheting 12.7 mm bursts and main gun rounds near-misses, but was able to be driven out.

Another three vehicles were put out of action by M1A sabot friendly fire (A-22, A-24 and A-31). Two other ones took some damage from T-72 main and secondary armament: A-33 was hit by a ricocheting 12.7 mm bullet which disabled the radio and wounded the commander, while A-26 was struck by fragments of a 125 mm round during the process of recovery wounded personnel from A-24.

The rest of the 14 IFVs platoon, all of them damaged by shrapnel and machine gun fire, was forced to withdraw. This is the only known action in which an Iraqi armored force led by T-72s Lions beat off a US ground assault in both Iraqi wars.

There is also another US Army reference to a third Bradley (K12), belonging to 3rd squadron, 2nd ACR (US 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment), hit by both kinetic energy and HEAT rounds and totally destroyed.This incident happened in the course of the scattered skirmishes that preceded the battle of 73 Easting, when a small Iraqi mechanized force (possibly a mix of 12th Armored Division and Tawakalna units) attacked, during a probing action, the ressuply area of the Regiment, between Al-Bussayyah and Wadi-al-Batin, around 2:00 AM. The night time incursion and the bad weather implies that the tank or tanks that attacked K-12 have infrared thermal sights, so the T-72 was the most likely killer. A second Bradley and two M-113s were also damaged, all of them to friendly fire. Several MT-LBs troop carriers and one unidentified tank belonging to the retreating enemy were reported as destroyed by US forces.

Invasion of Iraq (2003)

During the invasion of Iraq, the Republican Guard's Lions, most of them from Medina Division, were deployed around Baghdad to attempt a last ditch defense of the Baath regime. Since the beginning of the war, the bulk of the resistance had been conducted by regular army units, equipped with Type 69s and T-62s. In the process of the final run to the Iraqi capital, another M2 was struck by a 125 mm shell near Baghdad Airport in early April 2003, caught in the open while on a reconnaissance mission. Other sources claim the Bradley was destroyed by an Iraqi modified Type 69 fitted with a single 57 mm gun, but the high rate of fire of this antiaircraft weapon (70 rpm) makes this hypothesis unlikely, since there were just two rounds fired, one against the Bradley and a previous near-miss aimed at a Fox NBC vehicle.

This action took place during a counter-attack led by Republican Guard armored forces against the Task Force 2-7 Infantry (Mechanized) Tactical Operations Center (TOC). Other non-armored vehicles (Humvees and heavy trucks), possibly fell to tank main guns shelling the compound area at this instance, combined with mortar fire and light artillery. The assault was fenced off mostly by infantry armed with Javelin missiles, which destroyed a number of T-72s.

In preparation for the final US push, the Iraqi T-72s were the preferred target for Apache helicopters and A-10s, in an attempt to diminish the combat power of Medina. However, one of these US air operations, executed by Apaches from the 11th Aviation Regiment became a fiasco near Karbala, on March 25. The Republican Guard T-72s, APCs, ZSU-23-4 antiaircraft systems, along with infantrymen armed with AK-47s, aware of the American Army plans, surprised the 34 helicopters with a barrage of PKM, NSV, 23 mm, and perhaps 125 mm tank fire. The route of the raiders was uncovered by the Republican Guard long before they could reach their intended objective. This operation also shows that the US Central Command was over confident about the capabilities of the Apache's armor to defeat antiaircraft fire.

The large aerial strike was repulsed with one Apache brought down (according to Iraqi government sources, shot at by a peasant firing an AK-47, although it was likely hit by 23 mm rounds), and all the remainder damaged, some of them taken temporary out of service and at least two being written off. Only seven were still operational after the failed raid. The two crew members of the downed aircraft were captured by the Iraqis. This left the US Regiment grounded for the rest of the invasion and, in some sense, it was the last successful battle of the T-72 Lion of Babylon.

The last operational Asad Babils were destroyed by the successive waves of American armored incursions on the Iraqi capital or abandoned by their crews after the fall of Baghdad, several of them without firing a single shot. Contrary to what occurred in the Gulf War, when US forces crushed dozens of armored brigades and forced the rest to withdraw from Kuwait, the Iraqi Army of 2003 collapsed by itself after it became clear that the central power was no more. The derelict tanks were later scrapped by US Army disposal teams or shipped to the USA for targeting practice. Apparently, a handful of them that were still on production in the Taji complex or hidden elsewhere were later incorporated to the new Iraqi Army for training (see Aftermath section).

But the Lions and their now dismantled factory would continue to haunt American forces in Iraq under the guise of IEDs, many of them made from 125 mm HEAT shells or even sabot rounds and other ammunitions once produced in the Taji plant, and now used, often with deadly effects, by the Iraqi Insurgency.


From a wide point of view, the Iraqi T-72 was affected by the same lack of maneuvering skills which pervaded the Iraqi Army commander's minds since the war with Iran. The Asad Babils, like any other tank in the Iraqi inventory, were mainly employed as artillery pillboxes, rather than high-mobility combat vehicles. The Iraqi generals wasted numerous HEAT and even sabot tank shells in indirect fire missions from reveted positions, achieving nothing against coalition troops before being located and wiped out by helicopter or A-10 air strikes. This kind of tactics usually resulted in heavy barrel wear. As we have seen above, the ambushes were also mostly ineffective, and those tanks met their fate at the hands of Allied MBTs or IFVs. However, the destruction of the Tawakalna Division (the bulk of it Lion of Babylon tanks) by the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions cost the Allied forces too much time, and consequently they were unable to destroy other Republican Guard divisions before ordered to cease-fire. Many authors maintain that the very existence of Saddam's regime for the next 12 years can be attribute to this fact, since the surviving Republican Guard units crushed the Shiite and Kurd risings right after the Iraqi defeat in Desert Storm.


The Lion's primary armor was the same as the basic Soviet T-72 for export (T-72M), without any composite armor improvement, which made this tank an easy prey for any Western counterpart of latest generation. Their sides had just 60 mm protection, the turret side 300 mm standard and flat 45 mm at rear (later reinforced by the Iraqis). Nevertheless, the reinforced armor plate present both at the turret and the front upper hull seems to have worked relatively well against some shaped-charge ordnance, like the TOWs and Hellfire missiles. Indeed, there are reports of Iraqi T-72s surviving near-misses from these weapons, although becoming a mobility kill in most of these cases. The missiles could have been deflected by the electro-optical countermeasures of the tank.

Furthermore, there is evidence of a direct hit defeated in the already mentioned combat of Mahmoudiyah, also in 2003, when a 120 mm HEAT round from an Abrams impacted on the front of an Asad Babil turret at point blank without any significant consequences.

It may be that some of these tanks featured explosive reactive armor, obtained from spare parts of the Polish T-72M1. A US Commander in the field suggested that during their last stand for Baghdad, five Iraqi T-72s seemed to be equipped with reactives.

An improvised innovation that may have also work in these circumstances was introduced at the Taji complex, according to a Russian web site.

This source reports that an additional armor plate with a thickness of 30 mm was welded on the front areas of the hull and turret, leaving an air layer gap matching the size of the armor, so that the power of a HEAT jet could be dissipated in the hollow space. This technique follows the principle of spaced armor. The Iraqi engineers tested this reinforcement against 120 mm Chieftain tank rifled guns in 1989, apparently with some success. A FAS document claims that Russian designers took note of this Iraqi employment of layer armor for their T-90 MBT.

The same plating armor reinforcement seems to have been welded on the Type 69-QM front glacis.

There are also at least two examples of 25 mm armor-piercing cannon fire from Bradleys IFVs ricocheting harmlessly when fired at the Iraqi tank in Desert Storm. But in the end it was no match for the 120 mm DU tank ammunition, the so called silver bullet.


Two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the new Iraqi Government acquired dozens of refitted T-72-M from Hungary, in order to equip an armored brigade. Interestingly, the headquarters of this new Iraqi Army unit is located in Taji, so there may still remain some maintenance facilities for MBTs. The website cited in the link also says that some surviving Lions are used to instruct the new recruits. The training and experience of the old Iraqi Army officers and crews with the Asad Babil was also one of the reasons behind the choice of the Soviet-designed tank by the authorities.


Other references

  • Scales, Brigadier General Robert H. Jr: Certain Victory. Brassey's, 1994.
  • Atkinson, Rick: Crusade, The untold story of the Persian Gulf War. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
  • Rostker, Bernard: Environmental Exposure Report:Depleted Uranium in the Gulf. DoD Publication, 1998.
  • United States General Accounting Office:Operation Desert Storm: Early Performance Assessment of Bradley and Abrams. Washington, January 1992.
  • Dan Fahey, "Collateral Damage: How U.S. Troops Were Exposed To Depleted Uranium During the Persian Gulf War," in Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians with DU Weapons, International Action Center, 1997.
  • Forty, George: Tank Action. From the Great War to the Gulf, Allan Sutton Publishing Ltd., Phoenix Mill, 1995.
  • Camp Colt To Desert Storm: George F. Hofmann, Donn A. Starry, Editors. 1999.
  • Conroy, Jason & Martz, Ron: Heavy Metal: A Tank Company's Battle To Baghdad. Potomac Books, 2005.
  • Zaloga Steven J., & Sarson, Peter: T-72 Main Battle Tank 1974-1993. Osprey Military, New Vanguard. Reed International Books Ltd, 1993.
  • Zaloga Steven J., & Sarson, Peter: M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank 1982-1992. Osprey Military, New Vanguard. Reed International Books Ltd, 1993.
  • Isby, David: Weapons and Tactics of the Soviet Army. Salamander Books, London, 1988.
  • "Dragon's Roar: 1-37 Armor in the Battle of 73 Easting." Armor, May-June 1992, VOL CI, #3.
  • Apache Operation a lesson in defeat, By Rowan Scarborough, The Washington Times, April 22, 2003.
  • Jane's Armor & Artillery, Jane's Information Group, Surrey, 1988-89 Ed.
  • West, Francis J. Bing: No true glory. A frontline account of the battle for Fallujah. Bantam books, 2006.
  • Morris, David: Storm on the Horizon. Presidio Press, 2004.
  • Ricks, Thomas E.: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. Penguin books, 2006.
  • Bin, Alberto, Hill, Richard and Jones, Archer: Desert Storm, The Forgotten War. Greenwood Pub Group,1998.

Further reading

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