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Wrong Turn at a Postwar Crossroads?

Decision to Disband Iraqi Army Cost U.S. Time and Credibility

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2003; Page A01

Seven months after the fall of Baghdad, a single Iraqi army battalion exists to reinforce overstretched U.S.-led occupation troops. As casualties climb and large foreign armies remain on the sidelines, U.S. authorities are racing to recruit a credible Iraqi force to bolster the authority of a future Baghdad government.

Before the war, President Bush approved a plan that would have put several hundred thousand Iraqi soldiers on the U.S. payroll and kept them available to provide security, repair roads and prepare for unforeseen postwar tasks. But that project was stopped abruptly in late May by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, who ordered the demobilization of Iraq's entire army, including largely apolitical conscripts.

Members of the new Iraqi army guard a checkpoint in Nasiriyah. Sixty percent of the soldiers in the new Iraqi army served in the old Iraqi army. (Karim Sahib -- AFP)

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Bremer reversed himself a month later, but by then the occupation had lost not merely time and momentum but also credibility among former soldiers and their families, an important segment of Iraq's population.

Now, the Americans are trying to recover -- including rehiring some of the same soldiers they demobilized -- at what one top Defense Department official called "warp speed." And while the administration's handling of the Iraqi army has been widely viewed as a fundamental decision of the occupation, a number of U.S. officials and analysts are saying it was fundamentally wrong.

"This was a mistake, to dissolve the army and the police," said Ayad Alawi, head of the security committee of the Iraqi Governing Council. "We absolutely not only lost time. The vacuum allowed our enemies to regroup and to infiltrate the country."

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, a vocal opponent of the war, calls the move the Bush administration's "worst mistake" in postwar Iraq.

Supporters of the decision counter that the army posed a potential threat to a fledgling Iraqi governing authority and U.S. forces -- and that it was so second-rate and so infiltrated with Baath Party figures that it could not be salvaged.

"The Iraqi army was a pretty sick organization in a lot of respects," said Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, who played a role in the demobilization decision. "There was quite a bit of cruelty -- abuse by the senior officers of the junior people -- and there was quite a bit of corruption."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the army effectively disbanded itself in the face of the U.S.-led invasion. "They just disbanded and went home," he told NBC television recently. "There were conscripts, and they weren't paid very well, and they just left."

A former intelligence officer who recently returned from Iraq said more could have been done.

"How about announcing that we wanted them to reassemble? They could go out on the border. They could do static security. They could help against drive-by shootings," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You've got one battalion after seven months of occupation. You could have several divisions by now."

The question of what to do with the Iraqi army arose before the war. In January, two months before the battle in Iraq began, Bush assigned planning for the war and its aftermath to the Pentagon. Rumsfeld recruited Jay M. Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general, to pull together competing administration plans and to govern Baghdad after the presumed overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Garner and his top aides, including retired Gens. Jared Bates and Ron Adams, proposed paying 300,000 to 400,000 members of the Iraqi regular army at war's end. Also, Iraqi soldiers who surrendered to advancing U.S. forces would be formed into work units. Private contractors were recruited to help make that happen.

Military planners inside the government assumed, based on prewar intelligence, that some Iraqi units would switch sides during the war, while others would remain in their garrisons awaiting instructions from the U.S. postwar leadership. U.S. aircraft had been dropping leaflets for weeks calling on Iraqi forces to prepare for a brighter future by laying down their arms.

Looking ahead, members of the State Department's Future of Iraq working group on defense had developed a similar plan, concluding that former soldiers could provide valuable intelligence while performing reconnaissance and security missions.

Ahmed Hashim, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, offered a practical solution to Bush administration war planners. Arguing that the question did not demand an all-or-nothing approach, he favored purging the army of its most disreputable leaders and distilling the remaining forces into usable units. He also said soldiers should be paid, to minimize the chances that they would fight the occupation forces.

Garner consulted with Rumsfeld several times on the issue and briefed national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, a knowledgeable official said. He won approval for his plans at a Feb. 28 White House meeting with Bush and principal national security aides.

On March 11, the Pentagon announced its intention to pay several hundred thousand members of the regular Iraqi army. The elite and politicized Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, loyal to Hussein, would not be included.

The designs were in place as Garner arrived in Baghdad on April 21, a dozen days after Hussein's government fell, but even supporters concede pieces were missing. Details did not extend much beyond paying soldiers to keep out of trouble, several officials said. Paying them was "step one of something that was probably not very well fleshed out," said Bates, Garner's chief of staff.

"The first idea was paying them just to get them to stand by, with more to follow. Just to keep everything calm in the first days and weeks of the occupation. It was not 'Okay, we're going to organize 10 or 15 battalions,' " Bates recalled. "The decision on standing up the new Iraqi army had not been made."

As Garner was developing the policy amid the unexpected lawlessness in Baghdad, the White House replaced him with Bremer, a terrorism specialist with high-level State Department experience. He arrived May 12 with a mandate from Bush to take firm control of the U.S. occupation.

By that time, the prewar intelligence had proved inaccurate. No Iraqi units changed sides, and the number of surrendering forces was small. Iraqis had sacked Army garrisons, and entire divisions had melted away.

Bremer soon declared in internal meetings that no Iraqi units would be reconstituted and that soldiers would not be paid. On May 23, he issued a formal order that dismissed the army and canceled pensions. The order covered many categories of Iraqis, among them war widows and disabled veterans who were senior party members, defined as any officers at the rank of colonel or above.

U.S. officials in Baghdad, including Garner and Bates, were startled.

"It came with formidable force and decisiveness, as the president's policy. Nobody was supposed to challenge it and that was that," said one U.S. official in Baghdad at the time. Another said: "There was never a discussion that I was involved in where we would disband the military. It caught me completely by surprise."

The second official, recalling violent crime in the Iraqi capital, said Iraqi commanders had offered to gather soldiers, who would be paid for their work. The Americans could easily have pulled together "a couple of thousand military police in the Baghdad region," he said. "Many of the soldiers had taken their weapons home. Some had armored vehicles."

The demobilization decision appears to have originated largely with Walter B. Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense appointed to oversee Iraqi security forces. He believed strongly in the need to disband the army and felt that vanquished soldiers should not expect to be paid a continuing salary. He said he developed the policy in discussions with Bremer, Feith and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

"This is not something that was dreamed up by somebody at the last minute and done at the insistence of the people in Baghdad. It was discussed," Slocombe said. "The critical point was that nobody argued that we shouldn't do this."

Slocombe recalled discussing the issue with Wolfowitz on May 8 and with Feith several times, including on May 22, the night before Bremer issued the formal order. Trying to put the army back together at that point, he said, "would've been a practical disaster."

Beyond the practical difficulties of outfitting destroyed military bases, Slocombe said, an announcement that Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated army would retain considerable power would have produced "huge problems immediately" among the country's Shiite majority. Some at the Pentagon feared that the army could become an organized opposition to the U.S. military.

Senior U.S. military officers in the Persian Gulf region said they had advised Slocombe that the dissolution of the army -- recognized as an institution more loyal to Iraq than to Hussein -- would harm U.S. strategy. Demobilization was "a very basic mistake," said W. Patrick Lang, a retired chief analyst for Middle Eastern affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"In fact, most of the Iraqi army officers were nationalists, and they don't want to see the country break up," Lang said. He said carefully screened Iraqi units under U.S. control "would do much better against this enemy than we can."

Beyond the operational questions, opponents were disturbed that Garner's plans to pay soldiers to win their support had been abandoned. One former U.S. official in Baghdad put it this way: "Magnanimity in victory is an American trait. I'm surprised we blew it off this time."

An estimated 2,000 Iraqi soldiers protested the policy outside the U.S. compound in Baghdad on June 18, some of them hurling rocks, others carrying signs that said "Please Keep Your Promises." U.S. military police fired on the crowd, killing two.

On June 25, five weeks after Bremer's order, U.S. authorities reversed course again. Bremer ordered payments to about 370,000 conscripts and more than 250,000 officers, said a Pentagon official, who put the bill at $250 million for one year. The U.S. administration hopes to phase out the payments by mid-2004.

Hurrying to put together security forces -- including army, police and civil defense units -- the U.S. occupation has been recruiting former Iraqi soldiers. Slocombe said 60 percent of the enlisted soldiers in the new Iraqi army served in the old Iraqi army and all but two officers have prior service.

One battalion, with slightly fewer than 700 soldiers, is ready for duty. A second battalion is being trained. The administration hopes to put 35,000 Iraqis in army uniform, on a speeded-up timetable, as well as tens of thousands of police officers and civil defense paramilitaries.

"In terms of the actual reality," Wolfowitz said, "the thing is to get these guys hired back into an organization that we can actually use. That's what we're trying to do at warp speed -- but with careful vetting of the people we're bringing on."

Staff writers Bradley Graham and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

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