Half of soldiers quit Iraqi army over poor pay

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America's efforts to bring calm to Iraq have suffered a setback because almost half the recruits for the Iraqi army have quit, complaining of poor pay and working conditions.

An official with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) said yesterday that approximately 300 members out of around 700, who made up the first battalion of the newly formed force, had left.

"Their complaint appears to have been about terms and conditions and salary. We will look at these [and] review the terms and conditions," said an official.

The US governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer, abolished the 400,000 strong Iraqi army last May in a much-criticised move which many observers said created large numbers of unemployed men with military training and a grudge against the US. It was said many of the disbanded troops may be among the insurgents currently involved in a guerilla war against US forces.

The Bush administration justified the decision to abolish the army as a break with Saddam, when armed forces and security services were used to control the civilian population.

It is envisaged that the new army would total around 40,000, boosted by police and border guards. With the domestic pressure of needing to lessen its involvement in Iraq before the 2004 election, the establishment of the Iraqi army is being accelerated. The CPA official claimed that wages within the new army are higher than they were under Saddam Hussein. In the new army a private is currently paid around $60 (£34) a month while a Lt Col and other senior officers receive $150. Under Saddamrecruits received just $2 (£1.14) a month.

The official, who refused to be named, said that there had also been issues regarding discipline. "My understanding is that they felt they should be paid more money, for example, than the police," he said.

In October there was much fanfare when the new battalion completed a nine-week basic training course. The graduates, including 65 officers, were to be the core "of an army that will defend its country and not oppress it," according to Mr Bremer.

This week, the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed Iraqi forces were playing an increasing role in the country's security. He did not mention any problem with soldiers quitting.

Pentagon official said yesterday they were unaware of any other sizable resignations from the 160,000-strong new Iraqi security groups. A second army battalion is still in training.

Recruitment is done by US authorities and training is led by civilian instructors - mostly ex-US military from the US defence contractor Vinnell Corporation.