- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

BAGHDAD — Coalition authorities have moved aggressively to clear up problems with stipends promised to demobilized Iraqi soldiers, removing an irritant that had been contributing to the anti-U.S. insurgency.

Payment lists have been revised and staff placed in banks around the country to make sure that stipends promised to the former soldiers go to those who are eligible, U.S. and Iraqi officials said in a series of interviews.

Representatives of the former soldiers acknowledged that conditions had improved and said they believe the missed payments were the result of mismanagement and confusion rather than corruption.

“The decision to dissolve the army dissolved the finance and management departments, as well,” said Mohan Hadheq Fehed, deputy general secretary of the Iraqi Free Officers and Civilians Movement, a political party.

“Thousands of files belonging to ex-soldiers were lost, and there was no proof that they were in the military,” he said.

The dissolution of the army in May left Iraq with tens of thousands of jobless and increasingly desperate men who were at risk of using their skills in support of the insurgency.

In response, U.S. coalition authorities promised monthly stipends ranging from $50 to $150 for the estimated 440,000 conscripts in the former military and continued the distribution of food begun seven years earlier under the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Nevertheless, violent protests broke out late last year in Basra and other cities among ex-soldiers claiming to have been denied their pay.

After an investigation, the Coalition Provisional Authority confirmed last month that the names of some eligible ex-soldiers did not appear on the authorized-payment lists at banks, where soldiers collect their stipends.

“A new list of those eligible for payments has been sent to the banks along with a list of those people who submitted inquiries, but were found to be ineligible for payment,” a CPA statement said.

Coalition officials also staffed banks with customer-service representatives to help manage the payments to former soldiers.

Those eligible for stipends include former officers and noncommissioned officers of the regular Iraqi army, air force, navy and Republican Guard, as well as officer cadets, former Defense Ministry employees, caretakers of disabled veterans and families of POWs and MIAs.

Those ineligible include senior members of the Ba’ath party, special units of the Republican Guard, military intelligence, members of the Fedayeen Saddam, the former president’s bodyguards, personnel of Uday Hussein’s National Olympic Committee, senior advisers to Saddam, and certain members of Saddam’s al-Qods army, as well as those who used a false ID card or received double payments in the past.

Ahmad Mokhtar, director of the food-distribution program at the Ministry of Trade, said other problems arose when Iraq’s initial development fund ran out of cash last year.

The fiscal situation is much better this year as Iraqi oil exports, which are used to fund the stipend, the oil-for-food program and other programs, are now running at up to 2.3 million barrels a day, he said.

With additional cash donations from Western countries, he added, the government will have more to spend in 2004 than it did under the last few years of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

In addition, some former soldiers have been recruited into an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, whose members earn about $480 a month manning checkpoints and working with American soldiers.

The coalition has already trained and posted 10,000 men for a force that will eventually number 40,000.

Attempts to create a new Iraqi army have gone more slowly, in part because of defections caused by low pay and morale. Despite a budget of $2 billion this year, only a handful of 700-man battalions have so far been put on duty.

Mr. Fehed, whose political party promotes the interests of the former soldiers, said ensuring soldiers are paid and employed will do much to alleviate their anger and draw them back into Iraq’s mainstream.

“If a soldier is not paid, and his brother and father are also unemployed, you have a poor, desperate family,” he said. “The food rations are helpful, but are a very small part of the needs of the Iraqi family.”

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