U.S. examining plan to reconstitute Iraqi army

Groups of former soldiers would join security forces

November 10, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Six months after U.S. officials disbanded the 400,000-soldier Iraqi army, there are growing calls to bring back large parts of it to help combat stubborn guerrilla resistance and relieve stretched American forces.

"It's something that's very actively under discussion" and could be decided by the end of the month, said a State Department official who requested anonymity. "People are saying, `Let's entertain the idea. How would you do it?'"

A senior Pentagon official said the proposal - under review by L. Paul Bremer III, the American civilian administrator for Iraq, and U.S. military officers - would not necessarily include trying to rebuild Iraqi army units but rather integrating sizable groups of former soldiers into the security forces.

One concern, however, is whether large numbers of former soldiers can be screened to make sure they are not sympathizers of the regime of Saddam Hussein, officials said.

Some former soldiers have been recruited individually for security duty. But with the Pentagon hoping to nearly double the 115,000 Iraqis now in the country's security forces by next fall, it might be necessary to draw more heavily from Hussein's defeated army, officials said.

Before the U.S.-led invasion, the plan for postwar Iraq was to keep the Iraqi army intact, using its soldiers for construction projects and eventual security duty. That policy was abruptly changed three weeks after President Bush declared major combat at an end May 1. The Bush administration decided that the most pressing issue was to quickly remove all vestiges of Hussein's Baath Party in all institutions, including the army.

Policy change criticized

Some members of Congress are now criticizing that decision.

"I think we made a mistake demobilizing the Iraqi army," Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a hearing last week.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said: "The Iraqi army must be reconstituted, at least insofar as necessary to provide for basic security needs and to secure Iraq's borders."

Jay Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who preceded Bremer as head of the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts, had a detailed plan and funding for use of the Iraqi army. Some troops would rebuild roads, schools and bridges, while others would be retrained for security jobs. Iraqi officers above the rank of colonel, who had the likeliest links to the Baath Party, would play no role in the effort, which Garner said he discussed with Bush in mid-March.

The retraining proposal was also a key recommendation of the State Department's Iraq Working Group, which enlisted the help of 270 Iraqi exiles this year to determine how best to rebuild the war-torn country.

But when Bremer abruptly replaced Garner in May, one of his first acts was to issue an edict disbanding the Iraqi army.

"I don't think that was a good move," said Garner, who was uncertain how the policy change came about. "We should have used them."

Former Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who retired three years ago as commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, called the decision to disband the Iraqi army among the greatest mistakes of the war.

"It was a shock to me it was so quickly disbanded," he said. "I think it was a blunder." By demobilizing the Iraqi army, Zinni said, the Pentagon "put a bunch of angry young men on the streets."

On May 28, a week after the Iraqi army was disbanded, Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, was asked at a Washington news conference if it was a wise move. And was there a link between disbanding the army and the increased attacks on U.S. troops?

"We view the de-Baathification policy not only as wise but as indispensable to the effort to create a free Iraq," he said. Without it, Iraqis "would not feel comfortable cooperating with us, talking with us, working with us."

Feith said he saw no link between the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the increased attacks. He noted that other countries, including Italy and Spain, were sending police to Iraq to help restore security.

During a recent news conference at the Pentagon, Walter B. Slocombe, the American civilian in charge of rebuilding Iraqi security forces, defended the decision, saying the Iraqi army "disbanded itself" by going home in the face of the U.S. advance.

The Iraqi force was a "conscript army" made up largely of majority Shiite Muslims, said Slocombe, who would not have listened to their Sunni officers and returned to duty, even if U.S. officials wanted that to happen. "And I don't think it's been a setback for creating the security forces," he said.

Last week, Slocombe returned to the issue in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, saying that "turning to the old Iraqi army wasn't an option in April and it is not one now."

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