Iraq Asks Return of Some Officers of Hussein Army
November 3, 2005, from NY Times Online
Iraq Asks Return of Some Officers of Hussein Army
By EDWARD WONG
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 2 - The Iraqi government called Wednesday for the return of junior officers from the disbanded army of Saddam Hussein, openly reversing an American directive issued in 2003.
The move is aimed at draining the insurgency of recruits and bolstering the Iraqi security forces, Iraqi officials said.
The Defense Ministry, with the support of the American military, has quietly recruited a few thousand former officers over the last 18 months. But this is the first time it has offered an open invitation to broad classes of former officers to rejoin the armed forces.
The move could represent a political overture by the Shiite-led government to disaffected Sunni Arabs, possibly to drum up support before the December legislative elections.
With the announcement on Wednesday, any former officers up to the rank of major are eligible for reinstatement by applying in November at recruitment centers in six cities across Iraq.
The move by the Defense Ministry represents the most public departure yet from an American policy instituted by L. Paul Bremer III, the former head of the American occupation, of cleansing the Iraqi government and security forces of former members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party and disbanding the Iraqi Army.
Many American commanders and military analysts have said the dissolution of the 400,000-member Iraqi Army in May 2003 drove many thousands of Sunni Arab soldiers and officers into the insurgency while depriving the country of a force that could help restore order. American and Iraqi officials now say a core part of the Sunni-led insurgency is made up of former members of Mr. Hussein's military.
Iraqi officials said any recruits signing up in November would go through a rigorous screening process intended to weed out possible insurgents.
Both the Americans and the Iraqis have been retreating in stages from Mr. Bremer's original "de-Baathification" order since early 2004. But American and Iraqi officials said Wednesday's announcement was significant for several reasons.
It not only explicitly extends an invitation to thousands more officers, but in symbolic terms, it also represents an official recognition of a practice under way for some time.
Some senior American military officials said Wednesday that the announcement seemed aimed at Sunni Arab officers, relatively few of whom have rejoined the military. They added that the Iraqi Army was desperately short of midlevel officers.
In Washington, a State Department official said that in negotiations on the constitution earlier this year, overseen by the United States ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, the Shiite majority agreed to lift some restrictions on Baath Party participation in the government.
"It was loosened a bit, but it was not a dramatic loosening that might have led more Sunnis to support the constitution in the referendum," said the official, who requested anonymity so he would not be seen as interfering in Iraqi affairs.
A spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Saleh Sarhan, said in an interview that Iraq needed the expertise of the former officers. The new army is trying to rebuild armor and artillery units and wants the return of tank drivers, mechanics and others, he added.
"We're trying to carry out big operations against the terrorists, such as sealing the borders of Iraq," Mr. Sarhan said.
In recent months, many American officers have acknowledged that it will be years before the Iraqi Army is capable of fighting the insurgency on its own. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that only one Iraqi battalion was then able to operate without the aid of the American-led forces.
The Iraqi government's announcement came during a surge of violence at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Officials said at least 30 Iraqis died in attacks across the country on Wednesday, the deadliest taking place in the town of Musayyib, where a suicide bomber in a minivan packed with explosives killed at least 19 people and wounded 61 others near a Shiite mosque.
The American military announced the deaths of six troops, two from a Marine helicopter crash in western Iraq that may have resulted from insurgent fire.
The helicopter, an AH-1W "Super Cobra," went down at about 8:15 a.m. near the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, the capital of rebellious Anbar Province, the Marines said in a statement. Col. Dave Lapan, a Marine spokesman, said the cause of the crash remained unclear.
But there were strong indications that the helicopter had been brought down by insurgents. At 2 p.m., a Marine Corps F-18D fighter jet dropped two 500-pound bombs on "a reported insurgent command center" just 500 yards from the helicopter crash site, said Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, another Marine spokesman. He added that there was no immediate report on the number of casualties from the air strike.
Anbar lies at the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, and several American helicopters have been shot down over its harsh desert terrain. Two of the other American deaths announced Wednesday, those of a marine and a sailor, occurred Tuesday in Ramadi, when insurgents attacked an American vehicle with a roadside bomb, the military said.
A soldier was killed south of Baghdad Tuesday in a roadside bomb explosion, and another died Wednesday of wounds sustained in an attack near Balad the previous day.
The car bombing in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, took place at around 5 p.m. outside a restaurant and just hundreds of feet from a Shiite mosque that was attacked by a suicide bomber in July. The explosion occurred as Iraqis were going home to celebrate the start of Id al-Fitr, the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.
In Baghdad, American military and Iraqi police officials reported two roadside bomb explosions that killed five civilians each. One took place in the south of the city, the other in the east. In the evening, two insurgents were killed in the explosion of a car bomb they were building in a house in western Baghdad, an Interior Ministry official said.
Political jockeying accelerated ahead of the Dec. 15 elections for a full-term National Assembly. Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile and onetime Pentagon favorite, kicked off his campaign by holding a news conference with fellow candidates from his slate.
Mr. Chalabi is the most prominent politician to break away from the religious Shiite parties that ran together as a coalition in last January's elections. He seems to be making a bid for a major position in the new government. He also appears to be repairing ties with the Bush administration, which accused him in the spring of 2004 of leaking American code-breaking secrets to the Iranians. His spokesman, Haider Mousawi, said Wednesday that Mr. Chalabi planned to meet in Washington on Nov. 9 with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and on Nov. 15 with Treasury Secretary John Snow.
In its Wednesday announcement, the Defense Ministry laid out a schedule for the recruitment of former officers. From Nov. 6 to 10, officers who held the rank of major can walk into designated recruitment centers and go through an interview and medical checkup. Those with ranks of captain, first lieutenant and lieutenant will then go in successive waves, until Dec. 1.
"The government made this announcement to put the right people back in the right jobs," Maj. Manaf Abdul-Hussein, formerly of the Iraqi Air Force, said in a telephone interview. "We've worked in the military for a long time, and we're specialists in the field."
The major said he knew of many colleagues clamoring for their jobs back because of the high unemployment rate.
Another former air force officer, Maj. Maithem al-Qaraghuli, said he had been pleasantly surprised by the ministry's announcement.
"I heard about the call today, and I'm thinking seriously of responding to it, because the pension I'm getting right now is not enough," he said. "It's just $80 a month. If you're supporting a family, that's just not enough."
The disbanding of the Iraqi Army and the purging of former senior Baath Party members from government, both announced in May 2003 by Mr. Bremer, have been widely criticized as two of the worst policy blunders of the American occupation. Some Shiite leaders, especially Mr. Chalabi, strongly supported the moves and continue to advocate such purges.
But Iraqi and American officials began in 2004 to roll back the changes. Mr. Bremer himself announced in April 2004 that the American administration wanted to encourage the return of teachers, engineers and others who had joined the Baath Party simply for professional advancement.
Well before the Wednesday announcement, the Defense Ministry had been recruiting former officers to work in commando units and other forces. There have been examples, though, of insurgents infiltrating the new Iraqi units.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Dexter Filkins, Qais Mizher and Ali Adeeb in Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt and Steven R. Weisman in Washington.