US assembles new Iraqi army
Recruiting for a force to protect convoys, guard borders, and staff checkpoints began over the weekend.
BAGHDAD — With American ground forces stretched thin and facing dozens of daily guerrilla attacks in Iraq, the US-led coalition is stepping up the recruitment of thousands of Iraqis for the New Iraqi Army while making plans for a civil defense force.
The effort to tap Iraqis to perform some jobs now handled by coalition troops is part of a broader plan to put "an Iraqi face" on the postwar administration. It also comes amid recent setbacks to Washington's requests for thousands of additional occupation forces from foreign countries.
So far, finding Iraqi enlistees has not been a problem. A recruitment drive launched in three Iraqi cities over the weekend attracted long lines of Iraqi men in Baghdad, where US authorities handed out 3,600 applications in the first three days alone. "Some people try to jump to the front of the line, just like at Six Flags," said Army Capt. Jim Hickman as he worked to keep order at the recruitment center in the sweltering, 100-degree F. heat.
Down the sidewalk and across the street, groups of Iraqis huddled together filling out the detailed, 19-page application form and discussing their prospects for the new military.
Many of those seeking to join are former Iraqi soldiers and officers, including those bombed by US forces during the war. Driven by both a need for income and a desire to defend Iraq, none of those interviewed were deterred by recent, deadly attacks on Iraqis cooperating with coalition authorities.
"I'm not afraid. I'm ready to be trained," said Fasel al-Aubaidi, an electrical engineer and 19-year veteran of the Iraqi Army who worked in a military factory during the war.
Indeed, Mr. Aubaidi and others crowding the recruitment center were enthusiastic about the possibility of gainful employment after the old, 400,000-strong force was disbanded in May after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Angry protests by former soldiers and officers led the coalition authorities to agree to rank-based stipends and severance pay for conscripts.
But payments so far have not been enough for many like Aubaidi, a former captain and father of four, who has received a single $80 payment from the coalition. If selected for the new Army, he will earn an initial salary of $60 a month plus free food and lodging, and have access to healthcare.
"For jobs, I have no other choice," Aubaidi says.
The coalition plans to form three divisions - one each headquartered in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra - over the coming two years, including some 30 battalions.
An estimated 12,000 troops will be trained during the first year. The Vinnell Corp. in Fairfax, Va. won a contract for training the new Army under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton who commanded the US Army's infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga.
The goal is to create a force of men and women aged 18 to 40 that includes all ethnic, regional, and religious groups to defend Iraqi territory from external threats.
Initially, Iraqi forces will take over security at fixed sites, assist in the movement of convoys, and provide border control, according to US Gen. Tommy Franks, who recently stepped down as head of Central Command. "As it develops, this force will work with coalition forces to contribute to stability and security throughout Iraq," said General Franks in recent testimony before the US Senate.
Yet screening potential recruits is a challenge for the coalition. The application form asks detailed questions about criminal convictions, financial troubles, and - most important - membership in organizations such as Hussein's political and security forces. Top Baath Party members, intelligence personnel, as well as Special Republican Guard troops are barred from joining the new Army.
In some cases, the mistrust runs both ways.
Mohammad al-Dulaimi, whose fine clothes and grooming lend veracity to his claim to be a former lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi Army, took an application but hesitated to turn it in.
"Maybe they will put all the officers on trial," said Mr. Dulaimi, a commander in an infantry division based in Mosul that surrendered after negotiations with the coalition following the fall of Baghdad. "If they guarantee my life, my family, then I will join."
Some former Iraqi enlisted men sought reassurance that their treatment in the new Army would be better than it was in the old one. "I was forced to join the Army when I was 18 years old, and was paid 5,000 dinars [about $4] a month," said Akeel Abbas, who manned artillery in Basra during the war. Bribery by Iraqi officers was rampant, another former soldier said. "I want to know whether I would get paid better by the Americans."
Nevertheless, the abundance of recruits is welcome to US officials, who say they seek to accelerate the training of Iraqis to take some of the burden off the nearly 150,000 American troops now in Iraq.
"I would like ... to see this thing, the Iraqi Army, come along as fast as we can actually control it and put it to work," said Franks.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has also spoken recently of accelerating the use of Iraqi forces. "We intend to have the Iraqi Army grow as rapidly as we can do so," he said in testimony this month.
Plans to create an Iraqi civil defense force are also under way, according to coalition officials, although exact details remain unclear.
"There is no blueprint" yet for the militia, which reportedly would include roughly 7,000 Iraqis organized quickly as support for US forces engaged in tracking down guerrillas.
Britain, Poland, and other countries are expected to supply a total of 30,000 troops in Iraq by early fall, although several other nations including India have recently declined to offer forces without a larger United Nations role in the occupation.