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New York Times


Debate Lingering on Decision to Dissolve the Iraqi Military


Published: October 21, 2004

When Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus flew to Baghdad on June 14, 2003, he had a blunt message for the American-led occupation authority. As the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, General Petraeus had been working tirelessly to win the support of Iraqis in Mosul and the neighboring provinces in northern Iraq.

But the authority's decree to abolish the Iraqi Army and to forgo paying 350,000 soldiers had jolted much of Iraq. Riots had broken out in cities. Just the day before, 16 of General Petraeus's soldiers had been wounded trying to put down a violent demonstration.

Arriving at the huge Abu Ghraib North Palace for a ceremony, General Petraeus spied Walter B. Slocombe, an adviser to L. Paul Bremer III, who headed the authority. Sidling up to him, General Petraeus said that the decision to leave the soldiers without a livelihood had put American lives at risk.

More than a year later, Mr. Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi Army still casts a shadow over the occupation of Iraq. The American military had been counting on using Iraqi soldiers to help rebuild the country and impose order along its borders. Instead, as a violent insurgency convulsed the nation, United States forces found themselves deprived of a way to put an Iraqi face on the occupation.

While Mr. Bremer soon reversed himself on paying salaries to the ex-soldiers, his decision to formally dissolve the Iraqi military and methodically build a new one, battalion by battalion, still ranks as one of the most contentious issues of the post-war.

Mr. Slocombe argues that the move was necessary to establish an Iraqi military that was not tainted by corruption and was acceptable to ethnic groups that had long been repressed by Saddam Hussein's military. He also says that it was the only possible course because so many Iraqi soldiers had fled their posts and drifted back into the population and military bases had been picked clean by looters.

But senior American generals were privately urging a much different approach, according to interviews with military and civilian officials. Top commanders were meeting secretly with former Iraqi officers to discuss the best way to rebuild the force and recall Iraqi soldiers back to duty when Mr. Bremer arrived in Baghdad with his plan.

"It was absolutely the wrong decision," said Col. Paul Hughes of the Army, who served as an aide to Jay Garner, a retired three-star general and the first civilian administrator of Iraq. "We changed from being a liberator to an occupier with that single decision,'' he said. "By abolishing the army, we destroyed in the Iraqi mind the last symbol of sovereignty they could recognize and as a result created a significant part of the resistance."

Drafting the Plan

When the Bush administration first began to plan for post-war Iraq in early 2003, disbanding the Iraqi military was not part of the strategy. Douglas J. Feith, the under secretary of defense, outlined a policy for retaining and retraining the existing Iraqi military in a March 2003 meeting of the National Security Council that President Bush attended.

The idea, which was developed with General Garner, was to take existing units, remove high-level Baathists and supporters of Saddam Hussein, and put the soldiers to work. The Iraqi military, Pentagon officials reasoned, would have its own transport and could help with the reconstruction, functioning as a kind of modern day Civilian Conservation Corps. Units that proved themselves capable and politically reliable could help the American military maintain order.

At the White House meeting, Mr. Feith made another argument for using the existing army. Iraq was racked by unemployment and taking 350,000 armed men, cutting off their income and, in effect, throwing them out on the street could be disastrous.

American commanders also backed that approach. In a March 2003 meeting with a team of visiting Pentagon officials, General John P. Abizaid, then Gen. Tommy Franks's deputy, expressed concerns that the Americans would arouse resentment if they enforced security in Iraq largely by themselves. He favored a quick turnover of power to an interim Iraqi authority and the use of Iraqi forces to complement and eventually replace the Americans.

"We must in all things be modest," General Abizaid said, according to notes taken by a Pentagon official. "We are an antibody in their culture." _


Sunni group urges boycott of elections because of Falluja action


In a statement read aloud at the Umm al Qura Mosque in Baghdad, a cleric with the Association of Muslim Scholars, which claims to speak for as many as 3,000 Sunni mosques, denounced what he said was a campaign of "aggression" against Falluja and called on "Arabs and Islamic peoples" from around the world to support their resistance to American forces in the country.

"The use of the elections as a pretext to launch incursions into cities is unacceptable and disgraceful," said the cleric, Sheik Qasim al-Hanafi. "The clerics will call upon all the Iraqi people to boycott the elections and consider them bogus if Falluja continues to be subject to the incursions and bombardments."