October 21, 2004
'CATASTROPHIC SUCCESS'

Debate Lingering on Decision to Dissolve the Iraqi Military

By MICHAEL R. GORDON

New York Times

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."

There was a military imperative as well. The American commanders knew they might have sufficient forces to oust Mr. Hussein, but it would be difficult to control a large nation with 25 million people and porous borders with Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait. The V Corps, which oversaw United States Army forces in Iraq, wanted Iraqi Army units to patrol the borders to block terrorists, jihadists and Iranian- sponsored groups from sneaking into the country and to prevent loyalists and possible caches of unconventional weapons from getting out, a former V Corps officer said.

The Bush administration did not just discuss keeping the old army. General Garner's team found contractors to retrain it. MPRI, a consulting company based in Alexandria, Va., and run by Carl Vuono, a retired general and former Army chief of staff, received an initial contract for $625,000. The company sent a nine-member team to Kuwait to begin creating a program to involve former Iraqi soldiers in reconstruction.

RONCO, a Washington consulting company, developed a proposal to screen Iraqi soldiers so they could join a new fighting force or be retrained for other duties. The company drew up a detailed plan for three screening centers in northern, central and southern Iraq.

Civilian and military planners had been actively encouraging Iraqi Army units to surrender en masse or to flee and not fight for Mr. Hussein. There were indications the Iraqis would do just that. Faced with advancing American and British troops and a furious barrage from the air, most of the enemy soldiers fled in the first days of the war instead of surrendering. Still, the American generals decided it was vital to use the Iraqi forces, who many officers figured had done what they had been asked.

The New Iraqi Military

On April 17, little more than a week after American troops first entered Baghdad, General Abizaid joined in a satellite video conference with senior officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary. General Abizaid noted that no Iraqi units were still in place but urged that the United States form a three-division interim Iraqi military using units that had "self-demobilized" as well as members of opposition groups, who would be invited to appear at processing centers.

In Iraq, the American generals were trying to field a new Iraqi military. On May 9, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan and other senior officers met with Faris Naima, a former Iraqi officer, in a meeting coordinated by a C.I.A. official in Baghdad.

Mr. Naima had the professional bearing of a soldier and spoke fluent English. He had been the commander of Al Bakr Military College, a training ground for Iraq's top officers. Suspect politically, but still valued by Mr. Hussein's government, he was appointed as the Iraqi ambassador to the Philippines and then Austria. According to a report by Kuna, the Kuwaiti news agency, Mr. Hussein's son Qusay ordered him and his wife to return to Baghdad after their tour in Vienna, but Mr. Naima refused.

Wearing a frayed business suit at the meeting with the American generals, Mr. Naima pulled out a folded piece of paper from his jacket that outlined his plan for how to proceed.

Because looting had broken out in Baghdad and crime was rampant, he said a show of power was needed. The most important thing, he said, was security. He also said the Americans had to act fast to get the Iraqi noncommissioned officers and the police back to work, according to an officer who was present.

Mr. Naima urged the Americans to establish three- Iraqi military divisions, which would be deployed in northern, central and southern Iraq. An army company would be stationed in each major town to back up the police. Mr. Naima said there were plenty of potential military leaders who were not committed Baathists. The idea, he said, would be to start at the top, create a new Iraqi Ministry of Defense, and then work down. All the officers would be required to denounce the Baath Party.

When the Americans wondered where they would find the officers, Mr. Naima had an answer. I can bring them to you, he told the generals.

He also offered some political advice. The Americans should announce a departure plan so Iraqis did not view them as occupiers. And they had to pay the military, the police and the bureaucrats. Iraq was a nation of civil servants, he said, and they needed their salaries to survive.

The Americans were impressed. They thought they could work from the top down as well from the bottom up to summon Iraqi soldiers to duty, screen them and quickly install a new force.

While the American generals and the C.I.A. were working on reviving the army, General Garner's occupation authority was making parallel efforts. Soon after arriving in Baghdad, one of his top planners, Colonel Hughes of the Army, heard from an officer in the 101st Airborne Division, whose troops were patrolling Baghdad. Some former Iraqi officers had told the Americans they wanted to receive their salaries.

After securing approval from senior officers, Colonel Hughes met with the group at the officers' club of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The men, calling themselves the Independent Military Gathering, said they wanted to cooperate with the Americans. Though many wanted to work outside the military, they were willing to supply names of potential recruits, including lower ranking noncommissioned officials. Before the war, they had had removed computers containing military personnel records from the Iraqi Defense Ministry. Eventually, they gave the Americans a list of some 50,000 to 70,000 names, including the military police.

In Washington, though, Mr. Bremer was developing a dramatically different approach. A boyish-looking former diplomat, Mr. Bremer was to replace General Garner in May. He would become known in Baghdad for his take-charge personality and his trademark desert boots worn with Brooks Brothers suits.

He believed that many of the problems with violence and crime that the United States faced in Iraq stemmed from Iraqi fears that Mr. Hussein and his Baathist supporters might outlast the American occupiers and claw their way back to power. He wanted to take bold action to demonstrate that the Baathists were through, once and for all.

In a memo to the Pentagon, Mr. Bremer , noted his desire that "my arrival in Iraq be marked by clear, public and decisive steps to reassure Iraqis that we are determined to eradicate Saddamism." While his main purpose was to promote the de-Baathification of Iraq, plans to abolish Mr. Hussein's army soon became part of the initiative. Mr. Slocombe, who was under secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, recommended that the Iraqi military and the Ministry of Defense be formally eliminated.

As he saw it, the Iraqi Army had gone AWOL. There were no longer intact divisions, and many military vehicles and bases had been looted. Moreover, Mr. Slocombe thought the force was corrupt and dominated by Sunni officers. He did not believe it was feasible to recall the existing army and felt there was no choice but to build a new one from scratch.

After he arrived in Iraq, Mr. Slocombe met with Mr. Naima, former Iraqi officers and General McKiernan. Mr. Slocombe thanked the Iraqi officers but made it clear that he did not view them as the nucleus of a new Iraqi command, a participant said. It was a blow not only to the Iraqis but to the American military officers who thought they were identifying senior officers to help remake the army.

Mr. Feith, the senior deputy to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said in an interview that Mr. Bremer's thinking represented a necessary shift. Mr. Feith said that using the Iraqi Army had seemed sensible because the value of putting an intact army to use outweighed the disadvantages of using a potentially corrupt force.

"It made sense at first to say we are going to use them," Mr. Feith said. "When we saw that the Army did not remain in units, that the people disappeared, that looters had stripped all of the infrastructure, all of the various pros that weighed in favor of using the army had been negated by events. And we were left with the cons, a bad, corrupt, cruel and undemocratic army."

After arriving in Iraq, Mr. Bremer formally issued Order No. 2, The Dissolution of Entities, which abolished the army.

The order, dated May 23, noted that the occupation authority planned to create in the near future the New Iraqi Corps as the first step in forming a national self-defense capability for a free Iraq. But the schedule for building that force was methodical and no one who had served in the Iraqi military at the rank of colonel and above was to be recruited without thorough vetting. There were provisions for making a termination payment to officers who were mustered out, but salaries would no longer be paid. There was no mention of a program to retrain the troops for other tasks.

The Administration's Role

The role of top Bush administration officials in approving the plan is unclear. Mr. Slocombe said the decision was the subject of extensive consultations with senior Defense Department officials in Washington. A draft of Mr. Bremer's decree abolishing the army, he said, was sent to Mr. Rumsfeld before it was issued.

Lawrence Di Rita, Mr. Rumsfeld's spokesman, said in an e-mail message that the issue was not taken up by cabinet-level officials and was "definitely not one that the secretary of defense decided."

General Peter Pace of the Marines, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Joint Chiefs were not consulted about the decision.

Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, indicated that the idea did not originate in the National Security Council but acknowledged that the White House did not object.

"I don't think that anybody thought it was wildly out of context with what we were trying to achieve and the whole structure had been set up so that some of those decisions could be made in the field or through the Pentagon chain," she said in an interview.

In the field, however, the plan was more contentious than many in Washington realized. Much of the debate did not concern the abolition of the army but the subsequent plan overseen by Mr. Slocombe to establish a new army from the ground up.

Under his schedule, which Mr. Slocombe said was worked out with military planners, it would take a year to field the first division of infantry - about 12,000 Iraqi troops - and two years to train and equip a three-division force. To avoid the taint of Baathism, no one from the rank of colonel and above could join without vetting.

The military did not like that approach. The commanders did not care whether the army was formally disbanded as long as a new one was quickly assembled to take its place. But General Abizaid wanted Iraqi soldiers available in several months, not several years, planners at his command said.

When Col. John Agoglia, the liaison between the occupation authority and General Franks of the Central Command, learned of the plan, he quickly called the military headquarters in Qatar.

"There was a debate, which was not whether to formally disband the old army and not primarily about whether to recall old units," Mr. Slocombe said in an interview. "It was whether to put the process to train, equip and mold an Iraqi army under the command of select former Iraqi generals."

Mr. Slocombe said that his approach was no slower than that advocated by American commanders, because the extensive looting of the bases would have hindered retraining. He argued that his plan would produce a more reliable ally, not a Sunni-led force that would not be accepted by the Shiites and other ethnic group.

A former planner from General Franks's command strongly disagreed. "We wanted to rapidly call the soldiers back, get them on our side and then sort out who could and could not be trusted," said the planner, who did not want to be identified because he did want to be publicly caught up in the controversy. "It would have been a lot faster than building one battalion at a time. And we wanted to send a psychological message that they were going to be part of the new Iraq, to prevent them from turning against us."

General Garner, who was winding up his service in Iraq at that time, was also opposed. He said he had not been given advance notice of the plan. "What was happening was that hundreds of Iraqi soldiers were just beginning to come back," Mr. Garner said. "We could have brought back and paired them up in former units. Instead, we just shut the door on them."

General Franks and his commanders were in an awkward position, trying to influence a decision that already had been made. In late May, Rear Admiral James A. Robb, the Central Command's chief planning officer, told Mr. Slocombe that General Abizaid believed that former senior Iraqi officers should not be disqualified and that the training should be accelerated. General Franks followed up in a video conference on June 2 with Mr. Bremer.

"I think the velocity of doing it can be characterized as a miscalculation," General Franks said about the plan in an interview.

He also urged Mr. Bremer to pay the demobilized soldiers, who had few job prospects in a nation with soaring unemployment rates. General Petraeus reinforced that message when he ran into Mr. Slocombe at the military ceremony in Baghdhad two weeks later.

In a compromise, Mr. Slocombe agreed that senior Iraqi officers could serve on an advisory board, but without the prospect of command, the idea soon withered.

Soon after Mr. Bremer issued his order abolishing the army, the occupation authority made a discovery. He had initially decided to bar officers from the rank of colonel and above unless they could prove they were not high-ranking Baathists. But an examination of personnel records showed that important Baathists did not appear in large numbers until the rank of major general. Even then, only 50 per cent of those officers were affected. That was the point Mr. Naima had made with General McKiernan.

There was another problem with the plans for the Iraqi Army. The acronym for the New Iraqi Corps turned out to be a profanity in Arabic, so the name had to be changed.

Stretching the Military

As the insurgency took root in the volatile Sunni Triangle and in other Iraqi cities, the United States military was finding itself increasingly stretched thin. At the same time General Abizaid was pressing Mr. Bremer and Mr. Slocombe to speed up the training of the military, he also urged that a militia be established to help fill the security gap. But members of the new Iraqi Civil Defense Corps lived at home and were not a national force.

Mr. Slocombe and Maj. General Paul D. Eaton, who was brought in to oversee the training of the army, drafted a new plan to accelerate it, taking advantage of an agreement to train Iraqi officers in Jordan.

When fighting erupted in Falluja earlier this year, however, the newly trained Iraqi security forces did not acquit themselves well. An Iraqi Army unit showed little stomach for battle. When ordered to join American marines in combat, the soldiers refused to board a helicopter to take them to the town, saying they would not bear arms against fellow Iraqis.

In June, almost a year after he voiced his concerns about the initial decision not to pay the army, General Petraeus was appointed to a new post: training the new Iraqi Army.

In recognition of Iraq's new sovereignty, a veteran Iraqi general is serving as the army chief of staff, and some senior officers have been recruited. General Petraeus has trained one brigade of a new intervention force to fight insurgents and another brigade of regular army troops. He intends to have a division of each by January

But he - and his military and civilian bosses - have a larger goal in mind. By having an Iraqi army that can defeat the insurgency and secure the peace, they know, the Americans eventually can go home. "I know where this ends," General Petraeus said when he took on his new post. "It ends with the Iraqis in charge of their country."