WASHINGTON - Six months after U.S. officials disbanded the 400,000-soldier Iraqi army, there are growing calls to bring back large parts of it to help combat stubborn guerrilla resistance and relieve stretched American forces.
"It's something that's very actively under discussion" and could be decided by the end of the month, said a State Department official who requested anonymity. "People are saying, 'Let's entertain the idea. How would you do it?'"
A senior Pentagon official said the proposal - under review by L. Paul Bremer III, the American civilian administrator for Iraq, and U.S. military officers - would not necessarily include trying to rebuild Iraqi army units but rather integrating sizable groups of former soldiers into the security forces.
One concern, however, is whether large numbers of former soldiers can be screened to make sure they are not sympathizers of the regime of Saddam Hussein, officials said.
Some former soldiers have been recruited individually for security duty. But with the Pentagon hoping to nearly double the 115,000 Iraqis now in the country's security forces by next fall, it might be necessary to draw more heavily from Hussein's defeated army, officials said.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, the plan for postwar Iraq was to keep the Iraqi army intact, using its soldiers for construction projects and eventual security duty. That policy was abruptly changed three weeks after President Bush declared major combat at an end May 1. The Bush administration decided that the most pressing issue was to quickly remove all vestiges of Hussein's Baath Party in all institutions, including the army.
Policy change criticized
Some members of Congress are now criticizing that decision.
"I think we made a mistake demobilizing the Iraqi army," Rep. Martin T. Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, told Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a hearing last week.
Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said: "The Iraqi army must be reconstituted, at least insofar as necessary to provide for basic security needs and to secure Iraq's borders."
Jay Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who preceded Bremer as head of the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts, had a detailed plan and funding for use of the Iraqi army. Some troops would rebuild roads, schools and bridges, while others would be retrained for security jobs. Iraqi officers above the rank of colonel, who had the likeliest links to the Baath Party, would play no role in the effort, which Garner said he discussed with Bush in mid-March.
The retraining proposal was also a key recommendation of the State Department's Iraq Working Group, which enlisted the help of 270 Iraqi exiles this year to determine how best to rebuild the war-torn country.
But when Bremer abruptly replaced Garner in May, one of his first acts was to issue an edict disbanding the Iraqi army.
"I don't think that was a good move," said Garner, who was uncertain how the policy change came about. "We should have used them."
Former Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, who retired three years ago as commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, called the decision to disband the Iraqi army among the greatest mistakes of the war.
"It was a shock to me it was so quickly disbanded," he said. "I think it was a blunder." By demobilizing the Iraqi army, Zinni said, the Pentagon "put a bunch of angry young men on the streets."
On May 28, a week after the Iraqi army was disbanded, Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, was asked at a Washington news conference if it was a wise move. And was there a link between disbanding the army and the increased attacks on U.S. troops?
"We view the de-Baathification policy not only as wise but as indispensable to the effort to create a free Iraq," he said. Without it, Iraqis "would not feel comfortable cooperating with us, talking with us, working with us."
Feith said he saw no link between the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the increased attacks. He noted that other countries, including Italy and Spain, were sending police to Iraq to help restore security.
During a recent news conference at the Pentagon, Walter B. Slocombe, the American civilian in charge of rebuilding Iraqi security forces, defended the decision, saying the Iraqi army "disbanded itself" by going home in the face of the U.S. advance.
The Iraqi force was a "conscript army" made up largely of majority Shiite Muslims, said Slocombe, who would not have listened to their Sunni officers and returned to duty, even if U.S. officials wanted that to happen. "And I don't think it's been a setback for creating the security forces," he said.
Last week, Slocombe returned to the issue in an opinion piece in The Washington Post, saying that "turning to the old Iraqi army wasn't an option in April and it is not one now."
Slocombe and Bremer said recently that they welcome former soldiers as individuals but not in large groups or former units. They noted that most Iraqis in the country's new army and security services have military experience.
Garner and retired Army Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan, who was hired by Garner to find ways to employ the former soldiers, acknowledge that the Iraqi troops went home after Baghdad fell in April and did not remain in their units. But they said that by May, large groups of former soldiers were approaching U.S. officials, looking for work.
"They began to gather in groups," Garner said.
"They started demonstrating. They wanted jobs," Cerjan recalled. He said the Pentagon still could return to his original plan: train former soldiers in 1,000-man increments for a variety of duties, including security.
Garner disputed the view of Slocombe and others that the Iraqi army was seen as a symbol of oppression. "The Iraqi people had confidence in the army, generally speaking," Garner said.
Moreover, the Iraqi people could help weed out soldiers who were Baathist sympathizers, Garner said.
"I think you ought to bring back as many [ex-Iraqi soldiers] as quickly as you can," said Garner, and return U.S. and British troops to their barracks for use as a rapid reaction force for the tough combat assignments. "Let the face of security be an Iraqi face, not a U.S. face or a British face," he said.
Iyad Alawi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said in a New York Times opinion piece last month that it is vital to reconstitute the Iraqi army and national police force, "at least up to the mid-officer level."
"The coalition's early decision to abolish the army and police was well intended, but it unfortunately resulted in a security vacuum that let criminals, die-hards of the former regime and international terrorists flourish," Alawi said.
'Understand the risk'
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army at a time when it believed that more countries would contribute troops to a multinational peacekeeping force. Administration officials are now being forced to reconsider that move, he said.
"They've been driven to this position by the continued deterioration of the security situation around Baghdad," Reed said.
Still, Reed and other senators in both parties worry that pushing too many former Iraqi soldiers into security services without proper training or scrutiny of their past could worsen the situation.
"My concern is that they're trying to throw numbers on the street," Reed said.
"Let's understand the risk," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. "The faster we go, the poorer trained and less legitimate the police and army will be. Putting them in charge prematurely is a recipe for failure."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, says it will take time to adequately train Iraqis. In the meantime, he said, another division of U.S. soldiers - 15,000 to 20,000 troops - should be sent to beef up security.
"Iraqi forces aren't a substitute for adequate levels of American troops," McCain said.