Playing With Soldiers


BAGHDAD, IRAQ—Last 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 Voice that 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.

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.

“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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