Julian Borger | US Turns Ally Into Enemy

Thursday, 28 August 2003 02:32 by: Anonymous

     US Turns Ally Into Enemy
     Julian Borger
     Guardian Newspapers Limited

     The demise of the Iraqi army has been disastrous for the safety of soldiers, aid workers and the public, writes Julian Borger

     Thursday 28 August 2003

     You have to hand it to the Bush generation of neo-conservatives. They are nothing if not optimistic. Even in the rubble of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, they saw reason for hope.

     The White House apparently believed that the atrocity would prove to be a tipping point that would persuade nations like India and Pakistan to send their divisions to help police Iraq, without no more of all that earlier talk about shared authority.

     Colin Powell was dispatched to the UN once more to sell this dubious idea only to find that those nations that were reluctant to send their soldiers to a dangerous and volatile place to serve in a US-led occupation force before, still felt that way, only more strongly.

     This stand has been portrayed by some in Washington as the typical manoeuvring of a morally bankrupt international community aimed at extracting political gain from a tragedy. Washington's critics, according to this view of the world, will stop at nothing to clip America's wings.

     In truth, most UN members would happily put their troops under the command of an American general in the event of a justified war. No other military comes close in efficiency or technology, apart from residual concerns from the latest war that the friendly fire issue has clearly not been entirely solved.

     The problem in Iraq is not that other armies are too proud to subordinate themselves to US commanders, nor is it even that most countries were never convinced the invasion was justified. That is water under the bridge, and the challenge now is reconstruction.

     The sticking point for most of the rest of the world is that the US is running the reconstruction effort so badly it is putting every other foreign aid worker and soldier, and the Iraqis themselves, more at risk than they should be.

     Don't forget the people calling the shots in Baghdad are the very ones who blithely assumed the Iraqi government would continue to function before, during and after the war, simply transferring its allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. This is an administration that still has not got water, oil and electricity flowing again because other tasks like repainting schools (a more immediately gratifying photo-op) have taken priority, as has doling out contracts to US corporations at the expense of existing Iraqi contractors.

     The attempt to rally an international force is all the more absurd when you consider that the coalition provisional authority had tens of thousands of able non-American troops at its disposal when Baghdad fell. It was a force that knew the country and could speak the language.

     It was of course the Iraqi army, and particularly its 100,000-strong professional core. The original plan, as laid out by the first US administrator, Jay Garner, was to keep much of this force in place and divert its energy to rebuilding Iraq. It had, after all, largely stood aside when the US and British invaded, and could be vetted for hard core Baathists with relative ease.

     But on May 23, a few days after Garner was replaced by Paul Bremer, the army was formally disbanded. It was only after a near riot that Bremer agreed to pay the soldiers a small monthly stipend of $50 to $150 a month. That may have helped to stave off hunger, but queuing in the intense heat for dole money that is often delayed when it arrives at all, has done little to ease the pervasive sense of humiliation for officers and professional soldiers.

     Major Mohamed al-Faour, a former Iraqi special forces officer who had helped liaise between Washington and Iraqi officers before and during the war, said the US had taken a potentially vital ally and turned it into a sullen enemy.

     "Disbanding the army was a big mistake," the major said from his home in Denmark. "They have created a terrorist nest in Iraq with all the ingredients - a chaotic country with no laws and no borders. And they have the bait - the American and English soldiers. You have now new terrorist groups with new names, and with a mutual interest with ex-Baathists."

     The bomb that devastated the UN's headquarters at the Canal Hotel and killed the organisation's chief representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was put together from old Soviet ordnance, most likely from the old Iraqi arsenal.

     Recruiting other foreign soldiers is not going to fill the security gap, al-Faour argues, just add to the "target-rich environment" for the insurgents.

     "The Danes and Poles and people from other countries will find same problems," he said.

     The extraordinary thing about all this is that it was a tragedy foretold many times over. Before the war, the state department organised a series of meetings under its "Future of Iraq" project. The sessions were late getting started because of the administration's coyness about its plans, but they brought together exiles from many walks of life and political leanings. By all accounts they had some fairly sober and sensible discussions about the likely security problems after Saddam Hussein's fall, the need to guard infrastructure, and the potential usefulness of the Iraqi army. The conclusions were put together in a series of reports and then in effect, thrown straight into the dustbin by the White House and the Pentagon, consulting almost exclusively Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi national congress.

     He insisted on the disbanding of the army, which he saw as a potential rival for post-war power. So reportedly did Israeli intelligence, the other group which found an open door at the Pentagon's office of special plans.

     If the US now wants troops to help rebuild Iraq, it is not too late, al-Faour argues. A new model Iraqi army could be rebuilt. That is being done, but at a slow speed and with minimal resources. There are only five hundred recruits so far, and there will be no more than 4,000 by the end of the year, each with minimal basic training.

     The wheel is being reinvented on a budget, but security for American, British, Danish, Polish and all the other troops sent out there, is not going to come cheap.

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