- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

BAGHDAD — Members of the Iraqi Governing Council argued yesterday over whether to honor or condemn the disbanded Iraqi army, reflecting deep divisions over an institution seen by some as an instrument of atrocities and by others as a symbol of national pride.

Outside on the streets, laid-off Iraqi soldiers — many dressed in ragged clothes — raged against the U.S.-led international authority in Iraq and threatened to join the insurgency that is attacking U.S. troops.

The issue was brought to the fore on the eve of Army Day, an event marked every Jan. 6 under Saddam Hussein’s rule by garish military parades and bonuses for soldiers. The army was disbanded by coalition chief administrator L. Paul Bremer shortly after he took office in May.

During yesterday’s Governing Council debate, some members condemned the former army, with one, Ahmed Chalabi — criticizing its involvement in wars against Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973.

Others praised it as a noble institution led astray by Saddam over the past quarter century.

“It’s still in our minds and hearts that the Iraqi army was the best army in the Middle East,” Raja al-Khuzai, a council member, said during a break in the closed-door session. “When this dictatorship came, it forced the army not to protect Iraq, but to invade other countries.”

The former soldiers, about 100 of whom protested outside the heavily defended Green Zone yesterday in Baghdad, were more likely to agree with Mr. al-Khuzai.

“The Iraqi Army is an honest, good, strong, Muslim army and is willing to defend the whole Arab nation,” said Abdul Razzaq Jassem al-Badawi, a 32-year-old former soldier who said he hasn’t been paid in months. “I feel betrayed.”

Mr. al-Badawi said he joined the army at age 13 and knows no other career. He boasted loudly that he would join the anti-American resistance if he didn’t start getting paid. “At least I’ll fight and die with honor.”.

Founded Jan. 6, 1921, Iraq’s army grew to become the world’s fourth largest. Under Saddam, it became an integral part of the security apparatus, with soldiers forced to study the doctrines of Saddam’s Ba’athist Party.

Conscripts were used to quell protests and antigovernment uprisings. Most infamously, the army sprayed chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and on Kurdish villagers in Halabja in 1988.

It suffered catastrophic defeat at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition in 1991 after Saddam’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, but continued to garner ignominy with its violent suppression of the Shi’ites in the early 1990s.

Mr. Bremer’s decision to disband the army immediately put 350,000 Iraqi men — all trained in the military arts — out of work and has been blamed for filling the ranks of an occupation insurgency throughout the country.

“Most people agree that it was the single biggest mistake of the occupation,” said Feisal Istrabadi, an adviser to Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi.

Coalition officials attempted to backtrack by providing ex-soldiers with pay, but many complain they’ve received only a few payments.

Americans have also been recruiting and training a new Iraqi army — barring many former soldiers with Ba’athist ties from joining — but have so far turned out only one battalion of several hundred troops. Many of the first recruits deserted their posts, citing poor pay and low morale. A second battalion is to graduate today.

Americans have also begun building up a 7,000-man Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, a domestic militia designed to patrol with the U.S. troops and maintain civil order.

The Governing Council has had little say over the future of the Iraqi armed forces. Yesterday, the 25-member body voted 11-7 in favor of a public statement that decries the abuses of the Iraqi army and calls on it to have no other role than to defend Iraq.

Afterward, a representative of Mr. Chalabi, a close ally of many Bush administration officials, recounted the long history of the Iraqi army’s abuses, dating back to its attacks on Iraq’s Shi’ite tribes in the 1920s and the country’s Assyrians in 1933.

“Even those who want to say that the Iraqi army did some good in participating in the wars for Palestine are misguided,” said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Mr. Chalabi. “The result of these three wars was not favorable for Iraqis. It only fed the myth of the Iraqi army defending the country and defending Palestine.”

Other Governing Council members argued against criticizing the old army and issuing a statement further alienating unemployed soldiers.

“It stokes the fires of the officers and the enlisted men who served in that army, and I think that this is not a wise thing,” Mr. Istrabadi said. “It’s a gratuitous insult.”

Others said the statement was meant not to condemn the army so much as its old ways.

“These soldiers are our brothers and relatives and people,” said Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shi’ite council member from Iraq’s south. “We want to recruit them back to the new Iraq. But on a new, professional basis.”

He added: “The sole role of the new Iraqi army is to defend the borders of Iraq — not to suppress people, not to put down demonstrations, not to interfere in politics.”

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