Under U.S. Design, Iraq's New Army Looks a Good Deal Like the Old One

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 21, 2005

TAJI, Iraq, Nov. 20 -- 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.

"It's better now," agreed Fathi, the former Republican Guardsman. "If they put all the former army officers and soldiers back in the new army, it would be even better."

In the spring of 2004, about half of the new Iraqi army either refused to fight or joined the insurgents during the first battles in the city of Fallujah. At the time, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey was commander of the 1st Armored Division. In September, he took over from Petraeus.

Dempsey recalled receiving a warning last year from Abdullah, the Saudi crown prince at the time, that Americans would find it tough to restore order after dissolving Iraq's only two powerful institutions -- the Baath Party and the army.

Dempsey declined to speculate on how much different Iraq would look today had the old army not been dissolved. "I don't know about the loss of momentum," Dempsey said in an interview last week. "I've stopped looking back to that, and I'm trying to figure out how to get forward."

Dempsey spoke after a ceremony Thursday officially delivering 77 Hungarian-donated Soviet-era T-72 tanks to the Iraqi army, giving the force its most formidable armor so far. Loudspeakers played music that would be familiar to members of Hussein's army -- including "We Are Walking to War," the anthem to which hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men went to battle against Iran in the 1980s.

The low-slung, refurbished T-72s, with gunners saluting from the hatches, rolled past the reviewing stand without breakdown or excessive smoke. The music, the martial pageantry and the tanks -- the same model as the tanks Hussein used to roll out to war against his neighbors and his peoples -- had men in the stands speaking nostalgically.

A crucial difference between now and then is that only one of Iraq's 10 divisions is armored, and the United States envisions Iraq as having little air force, and presumably little ground defense against enemy air weaponry. U.S. warplanes could wipe out Iraq's tank division in a half-hour, a U.S. official said.

To make the point that the new army is meant to fight guerrillas rather than invade Iraq's neighbors or level Iraqi villages, U.S. officers tend to describe what they are training as a counterinsurgency force, rather than an army.

After last year's partial meltdown, the Iraqi army is in line this month to cross a symbolic mark: 100,000 men trained and equipped. The goal is 135,000. The Defense Ministry's call for junior officers from the old army has drawn applications from 3,769 officers, with 2,662 of them accepted, said Wellman, the U.S. spokesman.

Many Western diplomats critical of the U.S. invasion and the handling of the American occupation nonetheless give Petraeus and others credit for the latest work on rebuilding the army.

But there are still doubts. One is whether Iraq's sectarian communities, under arms, will hang together or turn against one another. Even at the graduation ceremony at Kirkush in August, many of the heavily Kurdish forces could do the wave in the stands, at U.S. coaching, but could not talk to their Arabic-speaking fellow troops. Petraeus at the time acknowledged the risk but declined to venture how it would turn out.

The recruitment drive for junior officers from the old army was in part an effort to draw more Sunnis into the new army, lessening the perception that Iraq's newly ascendant Shiite Muslims and Kurds run security forces. Senior officers in the old army were generally members of the Baath Party and Sunni; junior officers were Baath Party members and drawn from different communities.

All 99,766 of the soldiers now in the army had to take a national oath, and U.S. and Iraqi leaders maintain a careful mix of officers at top levels. Those are among other measures to try to keep the army from being dominated by Shiites, Kurds or Sunnis. "The goal here is to make the army and eventually the police force an institution of national unity," Dempsey said.

Army training for the time to come will focus on building an army that can maintain itself -- keeping up payroll, supply chains and everything else, U.S. generals said.

"There was a point in time we were really trying as hard as we could to build the security forces fast," Dempsey said. Now, "it's not that we're trying to build a security force fast -- we're trying to build one that's good and capable." Growing pressure in the United States, with more lawmakers pressing for American troops to turn security over to the nascent forces and leave, cannot "be the factor that informs my decisions," Dempsey said.

In Taji, Alwan, the Sunni army captain, was ready to set a timeline for significant U.S. withdrawal. "Two years," Alwan said. If the Americans pull out before that -- before the government is steady, the constitution set and the army trained -- it "means we would go to civil conflict," he said.

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