Ex-soldiers pledge loyalty to new Iraq

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of former officers in the Iraqi army rose to their feet in the hall of the police academy in the northern city of Mosul, raised their right hands and solemnly denounced the Baath party and all its works.

The occasion had the air of a revivalist meeting with the penitent renouncing their past sins. As well as denouncing the Baath party, to which they all previously belonged, the officers swore to oppose attacks on the coalition and its allies and support the new Iraq.

Gen David Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division based in Mosul, was ecstatic at the turnout on Monday. ÒIt is beyond our wildest expectations,Ó he said. Long lines of officers snaked out down the hill outside the hall and by evening 2,243 officers, including many generals, had taken the pledge. ÒWhatever else you do donÿt run out of ÔBaath denunciation certificates,Ó Gen Petraeus warned his commanders.

In a homily, the general warned the Iraqi officers not to expect anything Ôexcept a sense of personal closure.ÿ But it was clear that they do hope that they will be paid pensions, salaries and no longer be black-listed for jobs. Maj Faiq Ahmed Abed, a grizzled veteran with 26 years military service, had served in the Republican Guard until last April when he stopped being paid. ÒSince then I have been selling my furniture to feed my ten children,Ó he said.

Abdul Wasit, formerly a captain in Saddam Hussein much-feared Amn al-Am (General Security), said his experience should be put to use restoring peace to Iraq. Asked about the unsavoury reputation of his former employers Capt Wasit pointed out: ÒWe security men are just like you journalists. Your newspaper asks you to write an article about something and you must obey the order.Ó The scene at the Police Academy in Mosul touches a central issue of Iraqi politics. The disbandment of the 350,000-strong Iraqi army and the firing of members of the Baath party, to which some 700,000 Iraqis belonged until last May, is seen by many Iraqis as a prime cause of the post-war violence. Though Gen Petraeus was quick to say that this weekÿs ceremony was organised by a committee of retired Iraqi generals, it is evidently a first step in including the old Sunni Arab elite within the new Iraq.

The 101st Division, its headquarters in a Saddam Hussein palace where the pillars and mosaics are more elegant than most, has been much more politically pro-active than the US army in the rest of Iraq over the last ten months. Lt Col D.J. Reyes, the senior divisional intelligence officer, said: ÒWe held elections and engaged with the local population within two weeks of arriving here.Ó

Three quarters of the topics raised during the daily meeting between Gen Petraeus and his senior officers are about administration and the local economy and have nothing to do with the local military situation.

Statistics flash up on a screen about the availability of fertiliser for local farmers and the state of truck traffic across the Turkish border.

The 101st Airborne, numbering some 20,000 men, has lost 60 dead both from hostile fire and accidents over the last ten months. It is now being replaced by the ÔStryker Brigadeÿ which is only half as strong. Aside from a rash of attacks last November the guerrillas have not been as active in Mosul as around Baghdad. They have seldom used roadside bombs, so lethal further south, and there has only been one suicide attack.

If guerrilla war in Mosul, a city of 1.8 million people, did reach the same intensity as in some other Sunni Arab towns then the Coalition would be stretched to deal with it. Lt Col Reyes said the guerrilla networks have been disrupted but that the most dangerous development would be Òif the pro-Saddam supporters linked up with those who are anti-Saddam but also anti-occupation.Ó

The US officers in Mosul are keen to say that the halving of the American forces in the city will make no difference. In the Iraqi police headquarters their commander Mohammed Khaeri claimed his 8,000 policemen will soon double in numbers. It is a job not without its dangers. He rolled up his right trouser leg to where he had been hit by five bullets last July when two of his bodyguards were killed and eight wounded.

The willingness of thousands of officers to publicly denounce the Baath party is comforting for the US and its local allies. But their desperation for jobs is such that they will pose a threat to any future Iraqi government if their needs are not met.