Jobless Iraqi soldiers issue threats

The US de-Baathification policy would not allow senior officers to join a reconfigured military.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Across from Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, jobless Iraqi military officers wait in the sparse shade of a tree. Their ultimatum to US authorities inside: Reverse the decision to dismiss the Iraqi Army en masse or face organized resistance next week.

Occupation authorities plan to start recruiting for the New Iraqi Corps, a successor to the army, by the end of the month. But as part of the de-Baathification process, L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian official in charge of postwar Iraq, announced that only demobilized enlisted soldiers are eligible. Any officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel will be excluded from public life altogether.

"By next Monday, if we don't have results, we will form a new Iraqi army, called the Armed Front Against the Occupation," warns Maj. Assam Hussein Il Naem, who says he represents about 160 officers - all trained men who could make life difficult for the US and British soldiers here. "New attacks against the occupiers will be governed by us. We know we will have the approval of the Iraqi people."

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The army's disbanding is one of several components of the US de-Baathification policy, which has incensed thousands of Iraqis - including many who were not members of Mr. Hussein's Baathist Party. For Mr. Bremer's newly renamed Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, last week's decision to dissolve the Iraqi military is a necessary step in the road to refashioning Iraq. But for many of the nearly 400,000 Iraqis who served in the military, it is a shocking move aimed at enfeebling the country - and one that leaves them jobless.

The tension is an example of the gap developing between the expectations of average Iraqis and the intentions of occupation authorities trying to run Iraq. While US and British forces hope to remake Iraq's military as a leaner, Baathist-free force, Iraqi officers feel that the two powers should be rewarding Iraqis for laying down their weapons during the war and paving the way for the invading forces to enter Baghdad.

And, as jobs supplied by the old regime - military or otherwise - have disappeared, few people have found sources of income to fill the gap.

Several thousand men protested earlier this week outside the Republican Palace. The protesters say they are trying to negotiate with US military officials to get their jobs back.

"We are demonstrating now because the Americans didn't fulfill what they promised in the pamphlets they dropped on the ground before the war," says Brig. Amer Abdul Ameer, a tall, tanned man in dark aviator sunglasses. If they don't reverse course, "I will be the first to carry out military attacks on the Americans."

The military is not the only institution that has been completely dissolved. Occupation authorities in Iraq will be putting about half a million Iraqis out of work when military and civilian employees are lumped together. Despite some talk of giving small severance payments to Iraqis whose jobs are deemed obsolete, many soldiers said they would not accept such fees in place of a job.

"We are aware of the difficulties the Iraqi de-Baathification policy has caused," Bremer said this week, adding that his authority is "trying to mitigate" the fact that so many average, even apolitical people have lost their jobs.

"Our objective in de-Baathification was quite clear - it was to go after people at the core of Saddam Hussein's ugly regime," he said. "It was not to go after people who joined the army merely to feed themselves."

Most dismissed soldiers, however, say that they had no choice but to join Hussein's military - and are now feeling let down by what they read in the Pentagon's promises.

Men shout to get their complaints in, each with a more pained story than the next: Large families at home that need to be fed, brothers who were tortured and killed for defecting from Hussein's army. In their eyes, they should be appreciated for the fact that thousands of soldiers simply walked off the job. Instead, they feel they've been penalized.

"If we had wanted to fight, we could have fought. But we just put down our weapons and walked away, not from fear, but to let the Americans save us from an unjust regime," says Mr. Amee.

Bremer said that some soldiers could be accepted into the New Iraqi Corps. And some former soldiers could be rehired for a $7 million program aimed at putting people to work on reconstruction tasks.

But no one in the top four tiers of any military or party-run organization can serve again, according to de-Baathification guidelines.

Iraqis here argue that only senior military officers who were loyal to Hussein should be kept out. But how to determine who ho wanted to defect - and who cut off the ears of defectors? Those who are demanding their jobs back say they had no choice but to serve in the military, and all say they were just part of the regular army, quite low in the pecking order compared with Hussein's Republican Guards and other elite branches.

"When you've had 35 years of Saddam's regime, you have to be really careful with allowing people back in," says Naheed Mehta, a spokeswoman for the CPA. "Some of the people really suffered under the military."

Many Iraqis are also incensed at the thought of the occupation powers recreating a military that would be a tenth of its original size. "I heard Mr. Bremer say we would have about 40,000 - but our Army was 400,000," says Maj. Ahmed Lutfi. "We still need to have the full Army to be deployed all over our country."

The frustration of the dismissed officers comes at a moment when US soldiers have been suffering almost daily attacks on their posts. The Iraqi Assistance Center, a wing of the coalition forces designated coordinate with humanitarian assistance and NGO projects, said in a briefing paper this week that they could expect "spectacular" attacks on coalition-related targets the next 30 to 45 days.

But Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commanding general of the Coalition Joint Task Force 7, said at a press briefing Wednesday that he was seeing progress in security in Iraq. The targeting of US forces, he said, was random and unorganized.

He acknowledged, however, that the dismissal of the army added thousands of men to the ranks of unemployed, increasing public anxiety. "There is a large segment of unemployed Iraqis," Mr. McKiernan said. "The challenge we face is to make sure there's a source of income."

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