This week, the Minister of Defense announced that the Iraqi Armed Forces would accept for service "retired" junior and mid-level officers of the former Army, up to the rank of major, and asked that such personnel volunteer for the good of the "precious motherland."This announcement seems to have been in the works for some time. Several days ago President Jalal Talabani held a "reconciliation" meeting with about a thousand former officers, in the course of which several asked that they be returned to duty. Some former officers, who were interviewed following the Minister's announcement, expressed a willingness to serve, though some thought that more senior officers should be included as well. While some others former officers said that would not serve, asserting that the current Iraqi government is band of "traitors" working for the United States, if substantial numbers of former officers do return to service, it may portend an important milestone in the development of the new Iraqi Army. Junior Sunni Arab officers were now welcome back, with the implication that they must be willing to serve loyally under Kurdish or Shia Arab commanders. That had never happened before.
Many students of the history of military occupation, both in and out of uniform, were - and remain - highly critical of the decision in May of 2003 by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provision Authority, to dissolve the former Iraqi Army because of its ties to Saddam Hussein and his regime. The 400,000 strong-army was not formally discharged, but essentially just told to go home. Many of these troops went home with their weapons. And some of them, especially officers, have been identified as leaders in the current anti-government violence. While supporters of Bremmer's decision argue that retaining the army was like "keeping the Nazis in power," that was exactly the point.
At the end of World War II, German and Japanese forces were required to maintain order until relieved in areas over which they still retained control, until properly relieved by Allied forces, at which time they became prisoners-of-war. This meant that German troops in Norway, Crete, and Bohemia and Japanese troops in Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, British Borneo, and several other areas, including portions of China, at the time of the Armistice of August 15, 1945, continued to occupy these areas, under Allied supervision, until sufficient Allied personnel could assume control, which in some instances took several months. Only then did the Axis the troops formally became prisoners-of-war. They were then properly discharged by the Allied occupying authorities, with some being held for prosecution as war criminals. But in Iraq, there was no foreign territory occupied by Iraqi troops, only Iraq itself. Nearly all the key officers in the Iraqi armed forces were Sunni Arabs, and selected mainly for their loyalty to Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. Thus Bremer and his staff had to make a quick decision. Do they allow several hundred thousand organized troops, led by minority, and much hated, Sunni Arabs, remain in their jobs, and risk having these troops becoming the basis for warlord forces, led by men who had long supported dictatorship? Or do you disband the army, and start over? Either way, there are risks. What would you have done?
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army is back in battle. This weekend, another major operation against terrorist safe areas was launched in western Iraq. A thousand Iraqi troops, and 2,500 American marines are going after al Qaeda safe houses and bomb workshops. The informer network in Sunni Arab areas is growing week by week, and more willing to provide information on al Qaeda, which is seen as a foreign organization that is killing more Iraqis than the Americans. But the American and Iraqi troops will also go after Sunni Arab terrorists, some of whom serve local tribal chiefs or warlords, while others are mainly gangsters, who do a little terrorism on the side (if the money is right.) Most Sunni Arabs are much less likely to inform on those who kill Kurds and Shia Arabs, but even this is changing. The government has been going after thousands of Sunni Arab notables, tribal and religious leaders and key professionals. One by one, these pillars of the Sunni Arab community are being convinced to support the government. This is no easy decision, as any Sunni Arab notable known to support the government becomes a target for the terrorists. But as the government can offer more security, plus prosperity, more Sunni Arabs give up supporting the tyrants and terrorists. The bad guys cannot afford too many of these losses. The tactic of killing Sunni Arab leaders who go over to the government does not always work. Many of these guys have their own little armies, and often accompany their change of loyalty with a violent attack on any nearby al Qaeda or Sunni Arab terrorists. Threatening to kill someone doesn't work if they can kill you back first. So while the killing continues, it's important to pay close attention to who is being killed, and who is doing the killing.