Dissolving Iraqi Army Seen by Many as a Costly Move
U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III had been on the job in Baghdad less than two weeks when he announced a decision that sent shockwaves through Iraqi society.
With a stroke of the pen, Bremer dissolved Iraq’s vast armed services, sending pink slips to more than 400,000 armed officers and enlisted men whose light resistance had helped secure the U.S.-led military victory against their government.
It was a decision that went against the advice of U.S. experts and exiled Iraqi military officers. They had spent months preparing detailed plans for the Bush administration that called for giving the Iraqi army a key role in winning the peace.
Now, many Iraqis believe, the cost of that decision is becoming painfully clear. U.S. troops and occupation officials are struggling to go it alone in defending themselves and Iraq against daily attacks by armed opponents, who are blowing up water mains, oil pipelines, electric towers, military convoys and, this month, the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Some experts believe that Bremer’s May 23 edict may even have provided recruits for the insurgency by alienating trained officers and enlisted men who were enraged by the decree. One administration official suggested last week that former senior officers may even be “directing” the attacks.
At the same time, Pentagon leaders are calling for Iraqis to take a greater role in defending their country against attacks. They are to build a new Iraqi army from scratch -- while most of the old army sits at home collecting stipends of $50 to $150 a month.
“Instead of us using these personnel against terrorism, terrorists are using them against us,” said former Iraqi special forces Maj. Mohammed Faour, who helped lead a group of exiles who were consulted in the administration’s early postwar military planning.
“This is a tragedy. We could use these people. They are military people. They are professionals. They are used to obeying orders. They need money. They need the lives they had before,” he said.
In defending the decision, Bremer, his top aides and administration officials in Washington said the army had dissolved itself and there was no Iraqi military left to rebuild. They added that the decision -- made at “very high policy levels” in Washington -- also was meant as a “highly symbolic” message that the old Iraqi government was dead.
“By the time the conflict was over, that army, so-called, didn’t exist anymore. There was nothing to disband,” Bremer said in a recent interview. The ranks of top officers, he added, “had been in the army so long they were essentially not going to be re-treadable into the new army.”
Some Iraqis find that explanation disingenuous. Tens of thousands of soldiers who went home rather than fight did so because the American forces urged them to, with weeks of leafleting that admonished them not to fight.
In the weeks before Bremer issued his decree, Iraqi officers were telling anyone who would listen -- from visiting exiles to foreign journalists to U.S. military officials -- that they were simply waiting for the Americans to order them back to their barracks.
Bremer’s decree appeared to reverse course from the path chosen by his predecessor, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, whose original post-battle plan incorporated much of the nation-rebuilding role the exiles envisioned for Iraq’s defeated armed forces.
Some also believe that the decision has contributed to escalating violence in Iraq. Those suspicions were fueled by evidence that the bomb used in last week’s U.N. blast was cobbled together from Soviet military munitions, a mainstay of Saddam Hussein’s army.
Indeed, shortly after the bombing, senior coalition official and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik was quoted as saying that authorities would not rule out former Iraqi military involvement in the blast, which left at least 20 dead.
“It was an atrocious decision” to disband the army, said Feisal Istrabadi, a Chicago attorney who participated in a State Department project dubbed Future of Iraq.
“I don’t understand why you take 400,000 men who were lightly armed and trained, and turn them into your enemies,” he said. “Particularly when these are people who didn’t fight.”
Some postwar planners flatly rejected Bremer’s claim that the armed forces could not be restored. Soon after Bremer’s order, his aides had lists of their names to give them severance pay.
“It would have been so easy to declare that the Iraqi army, what’s left of the regular army, should reassemble in its barracks in order to get their monthly salaries,” Faour said, adding that eight to 10 former Iraqi officers in Baghdad told him in early May that they were ready and willing to work for the Americans.
“You can’t put half a million people with families and weapons and a monthly salary on the dole. You can’t do this in any country. They’ll turn against you.”
Administration officials in Washington insist that even if the Iraqi army hadn’t dissolved itself, it would have taken months for occupying forces to determine which officers and enlisted men could be trusted. An estimated 9,000 officers, for example, were members of Hussein’s Baath Party, whose top ranks Bremer barred from government jobs.
“The army was the main instrument of repression by Saddam Hussein,” one of those administration officials said. “If we had allowed the army to continue in its present form, we would be losing hearts and minds right now.”
The ban on Baathists and the dismantling of Iraq’s armed forces were top agenda items for influential conservative advisors in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office.
“There was also a sense of, ‘We’ll make sure they never have a chance to do this again,’ ” recalled one U.S. official in Baghdad. “People very quickly realized this was wrong. Even the U.S. military reminded us that we won because the [Iraqi] military didn’t fight.”
Gutting what was once the most powerful Arab army on their doorstep was also a priority for Israel’s generals, critics say. The generals routinely visited Rumsfeld’s Special Plans Office as it developed plans for postwar Iraq.
The move was also endorsed by Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a Pentagon favorite to lead an interim Iraqi government.
Administration officials close to the planning insisted that no such agenda was behind the decision.
“This is not a neoconservative agenda,” one administration official said, asking not to be identified.
“These are decisions that were made at very high levels of the government and backed by Bremer. In the end, they will bear fruit.... If we didn’t dissolve the German army or the SS after World War II, where would we be today?”
Whatever the origins of the decision, it came despite volumes of contrary advice. Those recommendations, included in official postwar planning reports obtained by The Times, anticipated much of what has happened in Iraq since.
For example, the 18 members of the Defense Policy and Institutions working group of the Future of Iraq project foresaw the problems that could occur if Hussein’s military was abruptly disbanded.
In documents circulated through the Pentagon and State Department, the working group urged U.S. officials to incorporate career soldiers and officers in Iraq’s new armed services.
“More than 80% of the military were not die-hard Saddam-ites,” said one diplomatic source who was in Baghdad at the time.
Among the recommendations offered by members of the Future of Iraq defense working group, according to their documents:
* Iraq’s approximately 100,000 career soldiers should form the nucleus of a new, defensive military force removed from political activities. (In addition to the careerists, Iraq had more than 300,000 involuntary conscripts.)
* The framework of the Republican Guard should be retained, and most of its personnel transferred to a new Iraqi army, after screening to remove Hussein loyalists.
* Special forces brigades should be reorganized as peacekeeping forces and participate in the war against terrorism and drug smuggling.
* Military intelligence units should assist American forces with security and reconnaissance of terrorist organizations and hostile regimes.
* Former military personnel should be redeployed to assist in disaster situations such as floods and earthquakes and to participate in major agricultural and construction projects.
* A special police force consisting of Iraqi military and coalition personnel should be formed to maintain security and protect Iraqi institutions and infrastructure, such as the oil pipelines now targeted by insurgents.
The goal was to incorporate the military into civilian society and to use it as a vehicle for Iraq’s reconstruction.
The recommendations dovetailed with other reports that independently reached similar conclusions.
Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and an expert on the Iraqi military, had drafted a detailed analysis on the need to purge, yet protect, the Iraqi military as an institution.
He had briefed postwar planners at Washington’s National Defense University, which is run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I argued the army needed to be made smaller and based on the best of the regular army divisions.... And then I said the demobilized men immediately need to be given some kind of work, to ensure they don’t become partisans or members of organized crime,” Hashim said in a recent interview.
At his first news conference in March, Garner declared his intention to use the regular army to “help rebuild their own country” and “not to demobilize it immediately and put a lot of unemployed people on the street.”
“We’d continue to pay them,” Garner told reporters, “to do things like engineering, road construction, work on bridges, remove rubble, de-mine, pick up unexploded ordnance, construction work.”
But those plans evaporated along with the army, asserted Walter Slocombe, Bremer’s senior advisor on military affairs in Baghdad.
“The Iraqi army disbanded itself, or with a certain amount of encouragement from coalition forces. And by what, April 15 or whatever, there was simply no organized unit,” Slocombe recalled in a recent interview in Baghdad.
Of the various recommendations for using the army, he said, “they were thrown aside in the sense that it was evident there was no subject there to work with.”
But that nonexistent army suddenly materialized by the tens of thousands in the streets of Baghdad almost before the ink was dry on the decree to disband it.
“Dissolving the Iraqi army is a humiliation to the dignity of the nation,” declared one of the many banners borne by the thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and officers who began gathering almost daily outside the gates of the occupation headquarters.
Bombarded by such dissent, Garner’s successor, Bremer, adjusted his course, promising to pay the disbanded military additional stipends and invite some members to join the New Iraqi Corps -- but no one above the rank of lieutenant colonel.
“We had concluded talking to Iraqis, both in and out of the military, that people above the level of lieutenant colonel, because they had been in the army for so long, were essentially not going to be re-treadable into the new army,” Bremer said. “We had to create an entirely new institution.”
Training the Recruits
The first 500 recruits started training in Kirkuk this month, helping to build a force that will total just 12,000 by the end of the year and 40,000 by the end of 2004. Bremer’s aides also are building a new civil defense force, training a core group of 2,300 that will “put an Iraqi face” on the hunt for Baathists, officials said.
Meanwhile, officers sweating in endless lines to collect their stipends have been warning of revenge for months.
“My colleagues and I sweated in the heat, and we did not get a thing,” said Salah Lami, who gave up after nine hours in line this month.
“Iraqis by nature are very patient, but patience has its limits. When they run out of patience, it is going to be very hard on us and very hard on the Americans.”
For Faour, the former intelligence officer, it’s not too late to undo the damage.
“We still have time. The people are still there. They can still start, from now, working on establishing security forces from these people....
“This would be very positive for them now, to start gathering the people instead of losing them.”
Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin and John Daniszewski in Baghdad contributed to this report.