by Charles Recknagel
of the biggest changes in Iraqi society that has come with the U.S.-led administration of Iraq is the disbanding of the huge Saddam Hussein-era army in favor of a small force loyal to the new government.
The decision to dissolve the old Iraqi army of some 400,000 men was one of the first made by Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer after Hussein was toppled in April. U.S. officials described the mass dismissal as a necessary step toward creating a reformed army of just 40,000 men excluding Hussein loyalists and committed to a democratic future.
But the transformation of the Iraqi Army, and the reintegration of so many former soldiers into Iraqi civilian life, has not proved easy. Just how mixed a record of success there has been was amply on display Jan. 6 as Iraq celebrated Army Day, traditionally one of the most important of the country's national holidays.
Several hundred former soldiers took to the streets in the southern city of Al-Basrah to march on the Central Bank. They claimed they had not been paid for months under the coalition's compensation plan, which offers ex-soldiers stipends of $50 to $150 a month depending on their past rank.
The protesters told correspondents they had received only a single compensation payment so far -- a three-month settlement in September 2003. Since then, they said, they've received nothing and, with unemployment in Iraq at 50 percent, are unable to provide for their families.
The protesting soldiers demanded, "How can we feed our families if we receive no payments?"
The mood of the protest soon turned ugly. As the protesters began throwing stones, Iraqi police first tried to use batons to quell the crowd, then opened fire. At least four protesters were wounded.
Two of those wounded were reported subsequently to have died at the hospital.
British forces arriving on the scene finally disbanded the demonstration by using loudspeakers to tell the former soldiers they would get their back pay, and that violence would not help their cause.
British authorities in Al-Basrah said later in a statement that the ex-soldiers would be paid on 7 January, but that "any further disorder could cause payments to be delayed."
The deaths of the two ex-soldiers in Al-Basrah comes six months after another two soldiers were killed by U.S. forces in a similar protest in Baghdad. It is the latest in a string of protests -- mostly peaceful -- by former soldiers demanding back pay from a compensation scheme that has been plagued by difficulties.
The U.S. daily "Washington Times" reported Jan. 7 that the funds for the compensation payments were originally supposed to come from monies seized from the former regime. The paper says that initially the soldiers received their payments from the coalition offices but later were asked to collect their stipends from banks.
The newspaper says this system "gradually broke down as the money ran out amid confusion among the banks."
The coalition has made no public comment on the efficiency of the compensation operation.
But if the problems stemming from the disbanding of Iraq's military were highlighted in Al-Basrah yesterday, some of the successes in gradually forming a new Iraqi Army could be seen in Baghdad.
To celebrate Army Day, officials of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the coalition attended a graduation ceremony for the 2nd Battalion of the new Iraqi Army, which has just completed training. The battalion comprises some 700 men, nearly 60 percent of them former soldiers in Hussein's army.
The new graduates make up the second such unit to complete training. The 1st Battalion is already on active duty attached to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division.
However, even the reformation of the Iraqi Army has not been without problems. Some 300 of the 700 members of the first battalion quit last month in protest of what they termed low pay. Salaries for privates in the new army begin at $60 a month and rise to some $150 a month for senior officers.
"The New York Times" reports that some 30 of the new soldiers who quit are now under review for readmission following a decision to add a hazardous duty allowance of $72 to their monthly pay package.
At the graduation ceremony, the commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, vowed to provide the new army with whatever it needs to become a functioning fighting force.
"We will have to build all the capacities that are necessary for Iraq to take care of its own internal and external defenses, whatever that will require," Sanchez said.
The United States has said that it expects to have trained and equipped nine battalions of the new Iraqi Army by the end of June, when the coalition is due to hand over power to a sovereign Iraqi government.
The army is supplemented by a paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps designed to help maintain security at the provincial level and which is to number some 36 battalions by the same date.
U.S. and British officials have not said how long their forces will remain in Iraq to help guarantee future security. But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested yesterday that his country's troops could be in Iraq for several more years.
Asked in London when British soldiers might return home, Straw told reporters: "I can't say whether it is going to be 2006 [or] 2007." But, he added, "It is not going to be [in the next few] months, for sure."
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