Iraq’s New Army Led by Officers from Old One

Ellen Knickmeyer reports that eighty percent of the officers in Iraq’s new security forces are holdovers from the Saddam era.

Under U.S. Design, Iraq’s New Army Looks a Good Deal Like the Old One (WaPo, A1)

Clad in the olive-green uniform of old, his heart rising to the sound of the lilting march to which he once went to war for President Saddam Hussein, Sgt. Bashar Fathi, a veteran of Iraq’s once-elite Republican Guard, watched Iraqi tanks trundle across a parade ground recently — just as they once swept across the sands of Kuwait. “This ceremony — this same music — it makes us remember the old army,” marveled Fathi, standing on the top tier of a reviewing stand south of Baghdad. Next to him was Capt. Khudhair Alwan, whose contact with U.S. forces began by trying to kill them as they invaded the southern city of Basra in 2003.

But this is 2005, not 2003, and this is the new army, not the old one. Fathi and Alwan, switching allegiances if not uniforms, are enlisted man and officer in the new Iraqi army, at the same rank they held in the old one. The two are at the core of the remaking of Iraq’s security forces. The first U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, disbanded Hussein’s army. But since then, Iraq and the United States have drawn upon Hussein-era soldiers, many of them from the ruling Baath Party, to rebuild Iraq’s military. The process was well underway when the Iraqi Defense Ministry called last month for recruits from among junior officers in Hussein’s military. “The vast majority of officers were in the previous army,” said Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, spokesman for the U.S. command overseeing the reformation of Iraq’s security forces. “People asked us why we didn’t call back the old army,” he added. “And the answer is, well, we have.”

The Bush administration says that, by the time Bremer’s post-invasion administration ended in June 2004, the reconstituted Iraqi army could count more than 80 percent of its officers and the majority of its enlisted men as former members of Hussein’s army. The Iraqi Defense Ministry continued open recruiting, including appeals for whole units to reenlist. An August notice in Iraq’s state-controlled al-Sabah daily newspaper, for instance, urged members of Hussein’s former transport logistics units to sign up for the new army.

The logic of recruiting the old soldiers is this: To withdraw the main might of U.S. troops here, American officials say they must leave behind an Iraqi army capable of fighting the insurgency. The military must be able to defend the country and government against what Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in charge of rebuilding Iraq’s army, said would almost certainly be attempts at coups and other civil unrest. The Hussein-era officers “have the officer training, combat experience and staff and leadership skills to enable them to begin contributing fairly rapidly,” Petraeus said by e-mail before leaving Iraq in September.

Bremer’s order on May 23, 2003, to disband Hussein’s nearly 400,000-strong army is seen by many critics today as one of the gravest miscalculations by the United States in Iraq. Removing all vestige of Iraq’s army when there were not enough U.S. troops to fully secure the country left borders open, allowed the insurgency to flourish and encouraged the growth of private militias, the critics say. Jobless and embittered, some troops turned to the insurgency. U.S. officials insist that Hussein’s army effectively disbanded itself — melting away after Americans invaded — and that reinstalling the old, Sunni Muslim-dominated military would have been impossible, and unacceptable.

In fact, Iraq’s American overseers at first never planned to reassemble much of an Iraqi army. The plan was to field a 40,000-man army, one-tenth the size of the old one, only by 2006. Iraqi troops would concentrate on tasks such as disarming land mines while U.S. troops handled the fledgling insurgency, then-senior U.S. military adviser Walter Slocombe said in June 2003.

At Kirkush, an Iraqi military training base near the Iranian border, Maj. Muhammed Ghalib, a veteran of the old army, paused and searched for the right words when asked by a reporter to describe the first stage of remaking the army. “Chaos,” Ghalib, 20, finally said. “It was chaos at the beginning.” “The biggest mistake U.S. forces made was to disband the Iraqi army,” said Ghalib, speaking over the summer at a graduation ceremony for recruits. “It’s then when the chaos started,” especially when civilians in some cases were put in charge of training, he said. “Now the situation is better, and the army is more qualified, because it is 100 percent Iraqi training, and the same old qualified officers training the soldiers,” Ghalib said.

Cori Dauber puts this in the

“heads I win, tails you lose” category, ever since the Iraqi army was disbanded by Paul Bremer, that decision has been roundly and universally condemned. It has been so universally condemned that it’s one of those things that the press doesn’t bother sourcing any longer — or referencing with any qualifiers. Yet now that it’s clear that the new Iraqi army includes many members of the old Iraqi army (although presumably since they were brought in in onsies and twosies and single units, there was at least a chance at vetting them) the tone of the article is deeply skeptical, even hostile, towards the use of these men. Even as it rehearses all the arguments about the disbanding of the army, and is hostile towards that. So the way the article reads, there was a decision made to disband the army, and that was a disaster. But now those officers are being brought back, and that’s kind of ironic, but is that really the best idea either?

Presuming a reasonable amount of vetting, this absolutely makes sense. While we can train private soldiers and junior officers relatively quickly, there is no substitute for experience in creating senior NCOs and officers.

In the aftermath of World War II, our armies of occupation stripped facsists from the ranks of the military and bureaucracy but quickly re-recruited many of them. The same thing happened after the American Civil War. For the most part, military officers and civil servants are not partisans but folks making a living. Putting Saddam’s secret police executioners in charge would be unthinkable. But, surely, the vast majority of Iraq’s officers under Saddam were simply soldiers who were loyal to Iraq, not its dictator.

Reinstating the old officers–again, presuming that the worst human rights violators have been culled–accomplishes several things. First and foremost, it rapidly accelerates the maturation process of the new force. Second, it puts influential people who might well have otherwise been alienated on the side of the new institutions. Third, it accelerates the transformation of the new force into a truly Iraqi force, helping remove the taint of having been created under the auspices of Western invaders. These are all incredibly important.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. phil says:

    Great, Jim. And back in THIS country…

    Republicans Calling a Decorated War Hero a Coward Devalue the Heroism of our Soldiers Currently Serving in Iraq

    Even in the Orwellian world of American politics the events of recent weeks have been surreal. But despite all the arguing going on among our political leaders one thing has been constant, that is the overwhelming support for our troops in the field. Regardless of ones political affiliation or view on the conduct of the operation in Iraq, it is clear that all Americans support the troops, and all grieve equally when they are injured or die.

    It is clear to anybody who is paying the least bit of attention that the war in Iraq is not going well. Thus far 2094 American soldiers have died and more than 15,000 have been left permanently disabled. The war has thus far cost the average American family over $3000 and costs each family an additional $100 per week. The sole measure of success on the part of the wars supporters is that if we left now the country of Iraq would implode. Americans have rightly come to question whether this is an appropriate measure of success for a war that has cost us all so dearly.

    But as the Bush Administration grows increasingly desperate they have come to adopt a strategy of questioning the patriotism of those with whom they disagree. It should be noted that 63% of Americans believe that the war is not going well, and that 57% of Americans believe that the Bush Administration misused pre-war intelligence to justify their preconceived plans of going to war. But Bush and Cheney are undeterred, grimly describing those who don’t agree with their policies as “deeply irresponsible, reprehensible and dishonest.”

    Recently the Bush war marketing campaign has taken a further turn, suggesting that those who question the Administration conduct of the war undermine our soldiers in the field, that those who disagree with Bush don’t support the soldiers. Only19% of Americans support Cheney, 34% support Bush and only 40% of Americans still believe that Bush is honest. Those numbers seem to be sinking by the day as Americans are increasingly disgusted and appalled by an Administration and a Republican Congress that judges whether citizens support their own soldiers on the basis of who agrees or disagrees with the Administration war policy.

    There is no doubt that we ask a great deal of our soldiers in the field, this has been the case throughout the history of our country. We have seen so many times that ordinary men are asked to perform extraordinary duties; those that go above and beyond are considered heroes and recognized by their country for their valor. Just over a week ago our country paused to reflect and remember, and to honor those who served our country in war. Veterans proudly displayed their medals, tokens of appreciation from a grateful country for their acts of bravery. Today in Iraq we have men and women performing those same duties on our behalf; some will be similarly honored.

    But what message does it send to our soldiers in the field in Iraq, soldiers whom we are asking to perform extraordinary acts of bravery on our behalf, when their Commander in Chief questions the bravery and patriotism of a soldier who earned 2 purple hearts? When the Vice President (himself a recipient of 5 deferments) suggests that a much-decorated veteran who happens to disagree with him “lacks backbone?” When a Republican member of Congress suggests that that same decorated war veteran is a coward? Does it devalue the service of our soldiers in the field when they see that the Administration can so easily dismiss a war hero as a coward simply because he disagrees with them? Why should they be as committed to duty, honor and bravery as John Murtha was when they see that the Administration would piss on Murtha and his medals for their political purposes? Would the Administration do the same to them?

    Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, just when you thought you had seen the worst of American politics, we’re treated to the spectacle of cowards like Cheney calling heroes like Murtha a coward. Orwell lives, but the last shred of decency on the part of the Bush Administration has long since passed. The Bushtanic is sinking, but as it was when Nixon went down the mood is not celebratory, it’s far more like mourning; mourning for our country, for all of us…for we brought it upon ourselves when we elected the incompetent bastard.

  2. McGehee says:

    Republicans Calling a Decorated War Hero a Coward

    Quotes, please?

  3. bob taylor says:

    I marvel at all the neophyte and psuedo experts on subjects they know nothing about. If you haven’t served then stand down and shut up. If you have served that still is no pass for stupid and irresponsible comments.