US decides to pay Iraqi soldiers and form new Army

The plan announced Monday is a significant departure from an initial policy of a one-time severance payment.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After weeks of friction between US authorities and the former Iraqi forces, the shape of a New Iraqi Army is emerging, along with plans to pay ex-soldiers who had been summarily dismissed last month.

The stipend plan - and the announcement Monday by US administrators that a streamlined and professional Army will begin recruiting next week - is an acknowledgment of the dangers stemming from the mass disbandment of former soldiers. The new monthly payments are a significant departure from the initial policy of a one-time severance payout. Besides the regular Army, the Republican Guard will also be included.

"The Iraq Army had a long tradition of service ... and many, perhaps most of its officers and soldiers regarded themselves as professionals serving the nation and not the Baathist regime," chief US administrator L. Paul Bremer said in a statement. "We have always said that former military personnel, except for those most deeply involved in the regime, would be part of the future of Iraq."

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The decision to continue payments is likely to take the edge off the anger of former soldiers, who had threatened violence andand set a deadline of Monday for a response to their demands for pay.

"Of course, there will be a change in thinking," says Blund Hassib, a former Iraqi colonel. He estimates that 75 percent of Iraq's former officers - many of whom felt they did the US a favor by lackluster fighting during the war - think "negatively" about the US occupation. "Until now," he adds, "no one has given these [former] soldiers any future, or told them what the new Army will be like."

Charting a new course

An initial division of 12,000 Iraqi troops is meant to be deployable within a year. A three-division force numbering 40,000 is to be ready in two years to guard Iraq's borders, secure routes and key facilities, and clean up explosives and mines.

Walter Slocombe, head of Security and Defense for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, says the "bulk of the training" will be conducted by a "US contracting organization," under the command of Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, the head of the US military infantry school. He said the aim was a force that will be "nonpolitical, militarily effective, and truly representative."

While insecurity and anti-American resistance has dogged US forces since they arrived more than 11 weeks ago, the sudden disbandment of the 400,000-strong Iraqi armed forces by Mr. Bremer May 23 risked further undermining security.

Unemployed officers and soldiers have threatened to arm themselves and target American forces. Protests have turned violent, including one last Wednesday in which a US soldier fired into the crowd, killing two.

The decision to dissolve the military entirely was one of several moves meant to sweep away Iraq's former ruling Baath Party and Mr. Hussein's power base. But from university campuses to army barracks, there have been complaints from Iraqis that the cuts went too deep.

Stipends

The stipends range from $50 to $150 per month, depending on rank, and could apply to up to 250,000 ex-soldiers, Slocombe said. Conscripts are to be sent home with a single severance payment.

The CPA noted Monday that recipients "must renounce Baathism and violence," and that no internal security members or top ranks of the now-banned Baath Party were eligible.

The name of the new force - the New Iraqi Army - came about after two false starts. The initial name was dropped since the acronym was pronounced like an expletive in Arabic. Another choice, the Iraqi Defense Force, was ruled out because it shares an acronym with the Israeli Defense Forces.

CPA officials suggest that the final size of Iraq's Army could be 60,000. They say that out of the prewar troop strength, only 220,000 men actually formed the real strength of the armed forces, with the remainder essentially representing padding.

Iraq's military soaked up one-third of Iraq's GDP before the war. "This light infantry will not be the bulk of the Iraqi Army, but remember that this country was grotesquely overmilitarized," Slocombe said.

Embarrassed by protests

Some former officers were embarrassed by the recent street protests and considered them unbecoming of professionals. "You have officers mixing with people who can't read and write, and Baath Party people infiltrating," says Colonel Hassib.

Vitriolic threats issued to US-led forces by some demonstrating officers were a "mistake," says Hassib, adding that Army officers who live by discipline and rules should "ask for our needs, like salaries, in a civilized way."

Hassib says that he and his twin brother, also a colonel, "have a great desire" to return to the Army, though the CPA has said that ranks of colonel and above will be excluded from the new force. Still, Hassib received a call last week from a former brigadier who had criticized Hussein, asking if the pair would consider new jobs.

The biggest problem faced by those trying to create the new Army, Hassib says, is to scrub out the fact that Iraq's Army for years was a "tool for Saddam Hussein," with aims of fighting the US, and "protecting Palestine."

Now those goals no longer apply, and need to be replaced.

"The Iraqi soldier's mind was brainwashed from the beginning, to do things like 'serve' Palestine. Now the Americans - our enemy - are inside the country, so what new aims do we have?" Hassib asks.

"Teaching those aims to the new Iraqi Army is going to be more important than training them."

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