Playing With Soldiers

Is the Cost Rising on CPA Bungling?

General Nageb Al-Salhi believes the recent moves against the Iraqi military by the CPA show little effort to understand Iraqi "psychology." "They didn't have to announce [the dissolving of the army]," says Al-Salhi, who now heads an organization called the Free Officers and Civilians Movement. Speaking at his party headquarters, in a neighborhood where U.S. soldiers are often seen in the new Internet cafés, he said the American decision was particularly hard to swallow because the army has employed thousands of Iraqis.

"There should have been another plan organized first, and they should have [publicly] justified their decision," he said, adding that the military here is in fact older than the modern state of Iraq. Al-Salhi says he talked with the U.S. State Department before the war and was promised that a new military would be organized, with the ability to defend the country.

The mother of Tarek Al-Mashladdani, who was killed by a U.S. soldier
photo: Heidi Schumann
The mother of Tarek Al-Mashladdani, who was killed by a U.S. soldier

"I still think it's their plan," he said, with some optimism, a week before Bremer did indeed announce a plan. "There was an agreement, and there's no country in the world without an army. We just need a few more months."

But this still doesn't explain why Bremer waited so long. According to Al-Salhi, the coalition had sufficient information that dissolving the army, without a plausible alternative, would be a disaster.

In a pamphlet entitled "New Iraq: Taking Care of the People First," a collection of essays written before the war, Al-Salhi outlined his vision for post-Saddam Iraq. The country, he conceded, would have to stop spending so much of its resources on the military and concentrate instead on human and economic development. But, he wrote, "the increase in armaments in the area, such as in Iran and Turkey, imposes on Iraq the need for the capability to defend its land and national interests, and not to have a weakness that would tempt those countries."

Downstairs from Al-Salhi's office, about a hundred former military employees are collecting salaries. These men and women, most of them technicians, engineers, or doctors, have been absorbed into other ministries and can now pick up their earnings, including back pay. They receive 300,000 Iraqi dinars (roughly $200) and a $50 bonus. But when approached by a photographer, the money and the relief at finally being paid quickly vanish. "Don't photograph us this way," says one man. "Have you seen the bridges we have built in this country? The buildings?" Another engineer echoes the sentiment. "This is our low point," he says.

Colonel Zahra Al-Rubaiyh says the soldiers expected money the day of the protest because his organization had told them it would be there. Al-Rubaiyh, who works at the Independent Political Prisoners' Association, another group formed by ex-army officers, said his movement had put up signs with the location and time of the payment, based on an agreement with the CPA. When it appeared that the building was too small to accommodate all the soldiers, he claimed, officials there canceled the disbursement. Al-Rubaiyh hoped the payment would be rescheduled, but he wasn't sure when.

The group's office, a block from the river, is full of machine guns, which Al-Rubaiyh claims they have permission from the Americans to keep.

The Independent Political Prisoners' Association is run by ex-prisoners, including a major general who spent 13 years in jail for a plot to kill Saddam Hussein. According to Al-Rubaiyh, Iraq's new soldiers will be young and not affiliated with a political party. "We also prefer that they be the sons of martyrs," he says.

Al-Rubaiyh's opinion is important. He says that his organization has been charged with helping to reorganize the Ministry of Defense. A CPA spokesman confirmed this collaboration, saying the group is providing "intel" for the project.

A 15-minute drive away, in a neighborhood called Freedom, Tarek Al-Mashladdani's funeral gets under way, in a large tent set up in an alleyway. His brother Ala'a greets a stream of visitors, among them Hassan Khalaf, the army veteran.

"In the beginning of the war, there was a lot of sympathy with the American side," says Khalaf. "While I was on the battlefield, it was clear the American planes were not shooting at us. They used to aim at tanks, at trucks carrying weapons. They knew who the soldiers were, but they didn't target them."

That sympathy, he says, diminished daily with the lack of a solution to the soldiers' situation; the deaths at the protest made matters much worse.

"We can organize the Ministry of Defense, and we can fix the army so that there are no 'Baathists,' " says Khalaf.

Al-Mashladdani shows Khalaf the American medical examiner's report. His brother was treated by American doctors before he died. The text of the report, which appears under the scrawled phrase, "Operation Iraqi Freedom," details the doctor's attempts to revive the 32-year-old after he was shot twice from behind.

"There was a third bullet," says Al-Mashladdani, suggesting his brother was executed while under the care of the Americans. This view is widely held at the gathering and among other Iraqi officers who have heard about the shooting. Interviews at the morgue suggest there was no execution, but the point is made. For the family of Tarek Al-Mashladdani, a Shiite who frequently deserted from the army, it has become thinkable that American troops execute injured Iraqi civilians with a bullet to the head.

As his brother's five children mill about the edges of the tent, Al-Mashladdani says he will try to bring a case in Iraqi courts against the American MP. When another group of visitors arrives, he excuses himself, and says he hopes the MP gets the death penalty.

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