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Comment: Army Plan Doubts

Plan by international authorities to establish new army may not meet the country's real needs.
By Adnan K. Karim

Anyone who cares about Iraq's national unity and the development of democracy will doubtlessly welcome the December 5 declaration of Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer that there is no place for militias in the new Iraq.

 

Bremer insisted that security matters should be handled by national organisations - the Iraqi army, the police and a civil defence force – raising hopes that the coalition at last attaches new importance to the construction of the Iraqi military - an issue that it earlier mishandled badly.

 

The coalition appears to have allowed its policies regarding the Iraqi military to be driven by some members of the Governing Council. Many on the council come from abroad, and they simply are not familiar with the military's experience under Saddam Hussein - how it suffered, and came to reject and resent the politicisation of its ranks; others see the army as a rival to their own power and that of their militias.

 

A main problem with militias is their association with political parties, which means that the interests of the latter will always override those of national security.

 

Militias can perhaps play a positive role on occasion. One idea is the proposed experimental anti-terrorist battalion of approximately 500 troops recruited from five party militias. If this experiment goes through and succeeds, it may encourage militiamen to enlist in the army as individuals, subordinating their political identities to the service of the country.

 

The Kurdish peshmerga militias, moreover, have kept order in many cities in the north. However, it is important to note that while the peshmerga answer to the police in matters of internal security, the latter should always be the main providers of law enforcement in urban centres.

 

Militias in the southern city of Najaf have had mixed results. Those belonging to religious parties have had some success keeping order, following the massive car bombing that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in August.

 

But order also has come at the expense of democracy, as the intimidating presence of militia forces - such as the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - keeps other parties from gaining a foothold.

 

Using militias clearly can contribute to the danger of civil strife. We can imagine what might happen if the coalition made use of militias in the diverse neighbourhoods of Baghdad – it would become wartime Beirut.

 

In contrast with militias, the first fundamental rule of a national military is that it should not get involved in partisan politics.

 

This rule, of course, is often broken - whether in Iraq under Saddam Hussein or elsewhere in the world. However, if it is followed, a national army can help weave Iraqis from different regions and ethnic groups into a single unified nation.

 

In addition, a strong military will fulfil its normal role of deterring invasion, protecting the country's borders, mobilising in the case of natural disaster, and building diplomatic ties through exchanges of delegations, pacts and multi-national training.

 

Unfortunately, in the past the coalition did not always seem to recognise the importance of rebuilding the Iraqi military.

 

It is widely recognised now that the decision in May to disband the Iraqi army was a disastrous mistake. Not only did this throw away a force that could have been used to keep order and prevent cross-border infiltration, it left many officers experienced in the use of weapons and tactics with no salary and nothing to do. Not surprisingly, many have reportedly taken up offers of 1000 US dollars to launch operations against the coalition.

 

The coalition is trying to establish a new army, but the plan may not meet the country’s real needs. The most recent reports say the projected size a year from now will number approximately 40,000 officers and soldiers, primarily light infantry.

 

Such a force would barely be large enough for border control along Iraq's long frontiers with six neighbouring countries, let alone accomplish any of its other missions.

 

Moreover, the proposed new military will not offer enough slots to accommodate Iraq's old officer corps - most of which had as little to do with Ba’athist politics as they could. Officers are now being forced to re-enlist as ordinary soldiers - which is not only humiliating, but totally out of line with what they were trained to do. The low salaries they are paid simply add insult to injury.

 

I would rebuild the military in the following way. I would start by expelling the highest commanders who were genuine followers of the old regime - the ministers, the chief of staff and the heads of the different branches of the army, navy, air force, surface-to-surface missiles and helicopters.

 

I would pay high salaries since officers and soldiers cannot hold second jobs, and must be able to support and protect their families despite living a great distance away from them.

 

The new military would be an all-volunteer, full-time professional army. The one at the time of the last war numbered some 400,000 to 500,000. Its replacement - without reservists, and those who don't re-enlist - could number some 250,000.

 

I would replace the pre-war tank-heavy, five corps-strong force with a smaller, defensively oriented military centred around infantry, light armoured vehicles and observation helicopters. Specifically, I envision two army corps each composed of two foot infantry divisions, a mechanised infantry division, an armoured brigade and a separate special forces brigade.

 

Iraq should also have a navy, an air force and air defence. The navy will be easy to rebuild - Iraq has a dozen unused vessels in shipyards and foreign naval bases all over the world, impounded after the invasion of Kuwait.

 

Iraq's new intelligence service, meanwhile, should be a resource to defend Iraq against foreign enemies, not to spy on its own population. It should be part of the ministry of defence and not be placed at the disposal of the presidency or the ministry of interior.

 

Of course, all this should be done under firm constitutional guarantees that the military will be subordinate to a civilian head of state, whose use of the army must be, in turn, subordinate to the legislature.

 

The new Iraqi military must also incorporate soldiers and officers from all of the different ethnicities and religions, reflecting the country's diverse mosaic.

 

A properly rebuilt Iraqi army will allow the coalition military to withdraw from Iraqi cities – a crucial element of the transfer of power from foreigners to Iraqis.

 

Moreover, if rebuilt properly, the army can be an institution that unites and empowers Iraqis, rather than dividing and suppressing them.

 

Adnan K Karim is a former rear admiral in the Iraqi navy.

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