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.
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.