A senior U.S. general has welcomed the decision by Iraq's Minister of Defense to invite mid- and low-level former military officers, who served under Saddam Hussein, to join the country's fledgling new army. At the same time, the Pentagon is defending the decision made 2 1/2 years ago to disband the old Iraqi army.
The Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lieutenant General James Conway, says as many as 350,000 former Iraqi officers could qualify to join the new army. He can't say how many will try, or how many will be accepted, but he thinks the Iraqi move is a good one.
"It has potentially some positives associated with it," he noted. "I understand that there is a need, always, for experienced mid-level officers in the Iraqi army. A significant percentage of those, I couldn't tell you how many, would likely be Sunni, and it will make the army more secular perhaps than it is right now, it would give that segment of the population greater engagement in the governmental process. And we think that's a positive thing."
Not long after the fall of Baghdad, the Coalition Provisional Authority under American administrator Paul Bremer disbanded the old Iraqi army. Most of its soldiers had fled their bases, and Mr. Bremer made clear they would not be welcomed back. On Thursday, the chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita defended that decision.
"Decisions were made then that seemed appropriate at the time," said Mr. DiRita. "And now the Iraqi government is making decisions that seem appropriate to this point."
The decision to disband the Iraqi army has been widely criticized. Some experts say the move provided weapons and trained manpower for the insurgency, and extended the U.S. military commitment in Iraq by resulting in the long, slow process of building the new Iraqi army.
Mr. DiRita says Mr. Bremer consulted with a variety of Iraqi community leaders, and all agreed that steps needed to be taken to ensure that Saddam Hussein's Baathist movement lost all control of Iraqi society.
"The general conclusion, the general attitude, the general response he got when he announced it to all these leaders was, 'It's important. It has to happen.' 'If I were you I'd do it this way.' 'If I were you I'd only do it this way.' But the general view [was] that 'we need a new beginning in Iraq because there's very few of the institutions that aren't tainted by Saddam Hussein," he noted.
General Conway says when the decision was made to dismantle the Iraqi army, there was concern that leaving the soldiers in place, even at the lower officer ranks, would undo the accomplishments of the invasion in ending the Saddam Hussein regime. But he acknowledges there was another side to the issue.
"On the other hand, the Iraqi army was the most respected institution in Iraq," he added. "And so there are advantages to having that stability, that respect that the people inherently have for their army, there to help them through what were some really tough times."
Indeed, former low-ranking soldiers have been welcome in Iraq's new army for some time, and some senior officers whose loyalty could be confirmed have also been brought back, including one who was promoted to Major General and put in charge of the new army's tank force.
Also on Thursday, the Defense Department confirmed reports that it is considering raising the level of its task force on countering insurgent bombs in Iraq. General Conway says there is a proposal to put a three-star general in charge of the effort. He and Mr. DiRita say significant efforts have already been made by the 140-member task force on developing ways to prevent, find or disable the bombs, which are currently responsible for more than half the U.S. deaths in Iraq, and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But they say the effort needs to grow and change, as the insurgents adapt to each U.S. move.