BAGHDAD — Unemployed Iraqi soldiers swarmed U.S. occupation headquarters yesterday, demanding back pay, emergency payments of $50 and vowing vengeance if they don’t get their way.
L. Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the U.S.-led occupation, gave no indication he was preparing to meet those demands. But he did promise jobs to thousands of men from Saddam Hussein’s army, “not to serve the regime and Ba’athists but to feed and protect their families.”
By the end of the month, he told reporters, occupation authorities would begin recruiting thousands of former enlisted men to join the New Iraqi Corps, a successor to the army.
Many of the protesters carried anti-U.S. signs, and chanted anti-American slogans.
“I am a soldier, and I want to work,” said a former army captain, as the crowd billowed and boiled across the street from a tense lineup of U.S. troops from the 1st Armored Division, which arrived in Baghdad a week ago.
“I love my country, and I want to protect Iraq — from any aggressor, including the United States. How can you take over our country and outlaw the army?”
Several demanded cash payments, similar to those given to Iraqi civil servants. Some threatened to step up attacks against coalition troops if they were denied jobs and money.
One unemployed soldier told a wire service reporter he would turn his six daughters into suicide bombers to teach the Americans a lesson.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Bremer dissolved the Iraqi army and most of its intelligence and security structures, saying they were too corrupted by Ba’ath Party officials and ideology to be redeemed.
Possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were employed by Saddam’s army, the intelligence services and various related groups. U.S. officials have said most of them will get their jobs back, except for the high-ranking officers and committed Ba’ath Party members.
Until a new Iraqi army can be formed, coalition forces will provide security at the borders, and they have been patrolling with the still-understaffed Baghdad police department.
As an interim measure, Mr. Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority will be hiring many of the former soldiers and other jobless Iraqis for a $7 million community-service program reminiscent of the Depression-era efforts in the United States to put people to work.
The idea is to employ the men and pump money into an economy that is dangerously moribund, despite its vast oil wealth.
“The coalition will do everything it can to stimulate the economy. That is my primary concern now,” Mr. Bremer said.
Of yesterday’s protest, Mr. Bremer said it should be viewed as a harbinger of a healthy democracy.
“Let me say that this is certainly the first time in 30 years that a group of demonstrators appeared anywhere near the palace gates, a sign of one of the freedoms they now have,” he said.
It was not clear whether the Americans, or for that matter, any army in history, has ever paid back wages to enemy soldiers they had just defeated. A quick scan of history books failed to find any examples, except for a case when the Americans paid German POWs during World War II for doing some work.
Despite the anger expressed at yesterday’s protest, the gathering of about 1,500 was largely peaceful, with just two arrested and one man hit by a car.
Mr. Bremer, in his meeting with reporters, called on foreign countries and companies to forgive the debt run up by the former regime, saying that it is appropriate to invest oil revenues into the country’s reconstruction and stimulate growth.
He noted the Group of Eight most-industrialized countries and Russia agreed recently to defer payment of Iraq’s sovereign debt until 2005.
But Mr. Bremer went further: “I’m not talking simply about the deferral of payments here. I’m talking about a substantial reduction in the present value of what is paid.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority’s effort to put people to work, while setting up an Iraqi-led government and ending the occupation as soon as possible, comes amid almost daily hit-and-run attacks by loyalists of Saddam’s regime.
A man on a motorcycle tossed a grenade at a U.S. armored vehicle outside a Baghdad mosque, injuring two U.S. soldiers and sparking a firefight that killed two Iraqi bystanders, witnesses told the Associated Press yesterday.
The ambush took place Sunday in the city’s Azamiyah neighborhood, where support for Saddam remains high and many bristle at the U.S. presence.
Azamiyah was one of the last sections of Baghdad to fall during the coalition invasion and the last place Saddam was seen alive. He made a brief appearance there — apparently during U.S. bombardment in early April — that was captured on a videotape that surfaced more than a week later.
Dozens of U.S. troops have been killed and injured in similar hit-and-run attacks across Iraq since the end of combat last month.
One U.S. military intelligence analyst said yesterday he did not expect the Iraqis would “go Palestinian” and adopt a policy of suicide attacks.
“However,” he said, “we’ve seen a lot of attacks, and I’m sure we’ll see a lot more. There is anger out there, and there are elements of Iraqi society that want to wear us down and send us home. But I don’t think suicide bombers will become their weapon.”