They are 15,000 strong, the best equipped and most loyal of Saddam Hussein's forces and, if war comes to Iraq, his last-ditch protectors.
Created after the rout at the hands of U.S. and allied troops in the Persian Gulf War, Hussein's Special Republican Guard will also be dead center in the gun sights of American military commanders.
"Saddam's ultimate protection is his Golden Division of the Special Republican Guard," retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who spearheaded a key U.S. attack in Operation Desert Storm, wrote in a recent analysis of the potency of Iraq's military.
Defense experts largely discount the ferocity of Iraq's current conscript army of 350,000, a poorly trained and armed assemblage that folded fast during the 1991 war, surrendering by the hundreds to bemused U.S. troops.
Even the once-storied Republican Guard _ Hussein's elite 80,000-man corps that was the only part of the forces to stand and fight under the heavy fire of Operation Desert Storm _ is viewed now as less of a threat, though one the Pentagon professes not to take lightly.
But the Special Guard, the shock troops of Hussein's regime, is expected to be another matter if war is waged.
"The Iraqi army would probably not fight for very long. The Republican Guard would last longer, but in the end surrender," Jane's Intelligence Review analyst Ken Gause recently wrote.
But the Special Guard "would probably take the lead . . . (in what) would be the last stand of the formal regime."
Any U.S. invasion would face three concentric rings of defense devised by Hussein and his trusted generals to protect Baghdad, the seat of power:
+ The first and most distant ring would contain the regular army, a ragtag force of 17 poorly paid divisions armed with aging tanks and munitions.
+ The second would consist of the Republican Guard, which encircles Baghdad with about six infantry and artillery divisions, plus all 600 of Iraq's best tanks, the Soviet T-72s. These volunteer troops would defend three main access routes into Baghdad. But, because of Hussein's doubts about their ultimate loyalty following several coup attempts, they would be barred from entering the capital itself.
+ The last, most important circle would contain the Special Guard, made up of four brigades that analysts say could be expanded to some 25,000 fighters if necessary.
Under the control of Hussein's son and heir apparent, Qusay Hussein, this unit is made up of men carefully selected for their tribal alliances to Hussein. They are responsible for Hussein's personal protection and guard Iraq's chemical and biological weapons caches. Besides Baghdad, these fighters also protect Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
This corps has about 100 tanks, along with armored fighting vehicles and antitank missiles. Though not highly trained warriors, they could prove daunting in house-to-house street fighting against U.S. troops, some analysts say.
If there is a Battle of Baghdad, the Special Guard would join forces with Fedayeen Saddam, or "Saddam's men of sacrifice." A volunteer of fiercely loyal militia of as many as 35,000 men formed in 1995 by Hussein's second son, Uday Hussein, this group is trained to operate antiaircraft guns and conduct guerrilla raids.
It also has earned a reputation for brutality. In 2001, militiamen carried out a series of public beheadings of women belonging to families suspected of being anti-Hussein. They have been accused of slicing off the tongues of those who publicly criticize the president. Clad in face masks and black uniforms, they have been shown on Iraqi TV butchering cats and dogs, and then eating the raw meat.
Many Iraq experts believe that the most elite of Hussein's forces _ particularly the Special Guard and fedayeen _ can be expected to stand and fight to the bitter end.
But Iraqi exiles hoping for Hussein's demise aren't so sure. Opposition groups, many of which are made up of former Iraqi army officers, say a number of their former colleagues remaining in Iraq hope to bolt to the other side once Hussein's regime begins to crumble.
Aiming to spur just such a reaction, the Bush administration has put out the word that those Iraqi officers and soldiers who do not fight will not be harmed or subjected to war crimes prosecutions.
But even if Hussein's best forces give it all they've got, they may lengthen any war but not win it, given the disproportionate advantages of the U.S. side, an array of analysts say.
"In my judgment, the Republican Guard (and other) forces simply are not capable of dealing with the violence, tempo, night operations and precision munitions of a U.S.-British air-ground assault," McCaffrey wrote. "In the end, allied forces will be compelled to kill the 15,000 troops of the Special Guard, and the cohesion of the guard divisions will be pulled apart."