As Bush Claims “Victory”, Iraq’s Military Stumbles On

Article 42 of the Hague Convention in 1907 makes it clear that when one nation conquers another nation, or deposes a hostile force within that nation, the conqueror is responsible for security and reconstruction. When Iraq has been sufficiently rebuilt to make certain that the government has the resources necessary to supply its people with security, the occupying force is expected to withdraw. Despite these responsibilities, the Bush administration is putting more time into fighting "terrorists" than engaging in its duty to the international community by rebuilding Iraq and providing effective security.

In Iraq there is nothing resembling security. Even in the north, a region where the Kurds have been defining a separate governing body for over a decade, security is still far from assured. The numerous attacks in Mosul, Erbil, and Kirkuk demonstrate that the insurgency is still hard at work even there.

Iraqis such as Sheikh Muhanid from Baghdad, agree with President Bush that Iraq’s current military does not meet acceptable standards: "I think the officers that are present in the current army are not qualified to be officers in the army."

The recent assault on offices of the Kurdish Islamic Union has demonstrated that even Kurdistan is not free from the sectarian conflict now common all over Iraq. As the security situation further collapses, Iraqis are increasingly returning to ways of life similar to the time under Saddam; trust no one, keep to yourself and mind your own business.

Iraqis are withdrawing into their neighborhoods, their tribes, and their immediate families. In certain neighborhoods in Baghdad you can see men on the street, but those Iraqis who have the luxury to feel safe in their neighborhood believe theirs is the only safe neighborhood. In neighborhoods such as Mansur and Yarmouk, life often appears relatively normal now. It is mainly in western Baghdad, in neighborhoods such as Ghazaliyah, Ameriyah, and Abu Ghraib, where turmoil is constant. Even in these areas there have always been safe havens. However, in recent times even secure areas such as Baghdad’s walled Agricultural College have become more like small prisons than havens.

Balkees is a widow whose husband was killed in October by criminals or fundamentalists. This changed her life dramatically, "I don’t leave [the Agricultural College] ever. I used to go out with my husband once a week and we would go to the market. Since they killed my husband I haven’t left the college ever." Balkees is an example of what many Iraqis are experiencing, scared as much by criminals as by insurgents, they are increasingly unlikely to travel outside of their homes.

Saddam’s general amnesty in 2003 contributed to the security problem. Many of the people released were political prisoners, and innocent of any crime, but many others were petty criminals. By disbanding the Iraqi army, the Coalition Provisional Authority eliminated the one force that might have been capable of dealing wholesale with at least the criminal element of security. A report released on August 28, 2003 found that in the wake of the occupation and the army’s disbandment, there was a drastic rise in violent crime. A statement from the team found that, "Much more remains to be done, particularly in developing specialized capabilities to tackle organized crime and drug trafficking."

There are many conflicting statistics about the new Iraqi army, including its size and level or preparedness. President Bush, in his November 30 victory speech, implied there were at most 96,000 Iraqi troops. Al Jazeera suggests there are just over 100,000 Iraqi troops. On November 28, Robert Burns, an AP military writer, wrote that only about four dozen battalions, equaling just over 40,000 troops, were playing a leading role in combat operations. No one seems to agree about the exact level of preparedness or the true number of loyal and capable Iraqi troops.

One thing is certain: Iraq’s army is far from ready to take over the day-to-day elements of maintaining security in Iraq. In an attempt to increase recruitment of Iraqis with previous military experience the Iraqi Ministry of Defense took unprecedented steps last month. Saadoun Dulaimi, the Minister of Defense, invited all Iraqi officers in Saddam’s army, of the rank major and below, to enlist in the new government’s army. "Those who wish to rejoin the new Iraqi army … should go to recruitment centers opened around the country … for medical procedures and interviews," said Minister Dulaimi.

He made it clear that no questions would be asked, explaining that these Iraqis, overwhelmingly from Sunni tribes, should not fear reprisals for any participation they may have had in the country’s two-year insurgency.

Iraqis expressed mixed-responses to the Defense Ministry’s actions. Sheikh Muhanid, an Islamic scholar from a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad said, "It is an excellent thing and it will solve a big part of the security problem."

A Colonel in the Iraqi army from the 1980s until 1991, who wished to remain anonymous, disagreed: "The people who were of the lowest ranks in Saddam’s army, Major and below, were not well trained and will not change much"

Subhi Abdul Hamid, representing Sunni opposition parties, felt the Minister had not gone far enough, "We encourage the officers to join the army, but not from the Major rank only, but from even higher ranks than Major."

The general amnesty and invitation to join the military expired at the end of November, 2005. The interim government’s failure to trumpet the success of this policy is more telling than any triumphant press conference. Either the general amnesty offer was much less appealing than some analysts predicted, or the interim government’s general attitude toward the move has shifted.

The lack of Sunni presence in the Iraqi army continues to be the elephant in the room. The overall strength of the army is certainly on the rise. Its diversity, however, is still lagging. Because of the continuing dominance of family and tribal relationships in the country, if the military cannot be diversified, Iraq will never be truly secure.

If the Iraqi army is not diversified there will be only security for those who are represented in the military. The campaign of torture and abuse that has recently been exposed emphasizes the partisan nature of law enforcement in Iraq. The Iraqi army has the backing of the interim government and the United States. If this army is predominantly Shiite or Kurd, it will necessarily carry out the interests of these ethnic groups.

Sheikh Muhanid, reflecting the common feelings among Sunnis and opposition parties, said "If we would be able to make the old officers sign up for the new Iraqi army, that would be a good step to improve the new army’s treatment of the people, because the current officers treat people so badly."

Brian Conley is a 25 year-old journalist and filmmaker. He is the founder of the Alive in Baghdad Project and has just returned from a six-week tour of Amman, Jordan and Baghdad. While he was there, the Alive in Baghdad Project focused on interviewing Iraqis living in and outside Baghdad. It is the goal of the Alive in Baghdad Project to make Westerners, and particularly Americans, more aware of the Iraqi experience and to begin to understand the occupation from the Iraqi perspective.