By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
BAGHDAD, IRAQLast week's announcement that U.S. authorities would start paying a monthly stipend (of $50 to $150) to as many as a quarter-million unemployed Iraqi soldiers might ease the dangerous standoff between the defeated army and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). The dispute reached its height on June 18, when a spooked American MP shot and killed two former Iraqi soldiers during a demonstration outside Baghdad's Republican Palace.
The demonstrators that day were demanding five months of back wages, and the resurrection of the Ministry of Defense, which was dissolved along with the army in late May by L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator for Iraq. Earlier on that sweltering morning, most of the protesting Iraqi soldiers had been at the city's retirement office, where they expected to receive a $50 "emergency payment." For a number of reasons, most having to do with terrible planning, there was no money for them, and so the men, sweating and at wit's end, marched on the palace.
It shouldn't have happened. A senior U.S. government source told the Voice that a decision to keep the soldiers on the government payroll had been reached months ago in Washington, long before the army was disbanded. Why this policy took so long to be implemented remains a mystery. Indeed, soon after firing the army, Bremer bristled at the suggestion that it was his responsibility, telling reporters that it was the "freedom of Iraq," that had put the Iraqi soldiers out of work.
It is hard to determine how much goodwill the Americans squandered in the weeks that the nearly 400,000 Iraqi soldiers sat unemployed, without a hint of America's plans for them. June was the bloodiest period of the post-war for the coalition, a month in which attacks on American forces left 16 soldiers dead. As the coalition searches for reasons for the bloodshed, it might well look to the disenfranchised officers, who threatened attacks if their demands were not met.
It may still take more than money to placate them. The new Iraqi army announced last week by the CPA, would, in its initial stage, be smaller than even the tiny armed forces in Kuwait, and certainly smaller than those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, or Israel. Further, the decision prohibits senior officers from joining the new force, effectively retiring them. There will be no air force in the New Iraqi Army, as the three-division, light infantry service will be called. In short, it seems clear that the security of Iraq, for the foreseeable future, will be guaranteed by British and American troops.
The demonstration at the palace started when a miscommunication ran into the Iraqi soldiers' shattered pride. While the payment issue has been partly resolved, the pride seems to have been ignored, raising questions yet again about the ability of the American administration in Iraq to fully understand, let alone rebuild, someone else's country.
The morning after the June 18 demonstration ended in death, the temperature in central Baghdad had dropped by a few critical degrees and the three-way intersection at the foot of the Republican Bridge, previously a confusion of bullets, rocks, and anger, was simply loaded with cars. A few scattered protesters still loitered on the sidewalk, but most clustered under trees for shade, and their chanted slogans weren't all that loud.
Their banners faced the American soldiers guarding the entrance to the palace where Bremer works. One group called for the release of prisoners captured by U.S. forces, claiming detainees were being tortured. Another small band of citizens agitated for more electricity, better security, and the like.
Hassan Khalaf spoke to a third group of 20 or so men from a wobbly perch atop a slab of dislodged concrete. He called the previous day's protest a failure, degenerating as it had, initially into bouts of rock-throwing at soldiers and journalists, followed by the fatal shooting of the two men.
Khalaf reasoned that as Iraqi officers with a proud history, fired along with the rest of the army, they all would be better served practicing nonviolence. A 35-year veteran of the army's engineering corps, Khalaf had no problem focusing the group's attention. "Don't make mistakes," Khalaf pleaded to his small assembly. "Don't give them a chance to blame the Iraqi army for the things we're not responsible for."
Among those acts the soldiers might be responsible for are the stepped-up attacks on American soldiers. Khalaf and other former Iraqi soldiers told the Voicethat senior military officials loyal to the last regime have tried to provoke violent confrontations with the Americans, and encouraged Iraqi soldiers to give armed resistance. According to these men, provocateurs have found sympathetic ears particularly among the officer corps frozen out of the plans for the new army. Khalaf says that the CPA has made little effort to determine which senior officers could be useful in a new military, and no attempt, really, to communicate with a number of former Iraqi generals considered "clean" by many in the army. If disgruntled former officers are behind some of the now daily attacks on Americans, the decision to leave them out of future plans seems unwise.