People like the Ba’athists are people who should be ruling over the Middle East. People who have a sense of identity, but are not religious zealots. Similar people should be ruling over Israel right now.
Iraq on Friday announced the reinstatement of 20,000 former army officers who were dismissed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, in a gesture toward healing sectarian resentment over the disbanding of Saddam Hussein’s military.
But the timing of the announcement raised suspicions that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies were just currying votes in upcoming parliamentary election.
The skepticism underscored how bitter feelings have become between Iraq’s factions ahead of the March 7 vote. Many had hoped the vote would be a chance to move past the Shiite-Sunni divisions that have wracked Iraq since Saddam’s fall nearly seven years ago, but instead the mistrust between the two sides has become starker.
Al-Maliki is facing Sunni anger after a Shiite-led commission barred 440 candidates—mostly Sunnis—from running because of suspected ties to Saddam’s former ruling party.
In theory, the military reinstatements should be good news for Sunnis. The 2003 order by Iraq’s then-American governor L Paul Bremer to dissolve Saddam’s 400,000-strong army—the largest in the Middle East on the eve of the 2003 invasion—is widely seen as one of the factors that fueled Sunnis’ sense of alienation with the new Iraq from the very start.
Sunnis dominated Saddam’s regime, and many top military officers came from the community. Jobless and angry, some from the old army took their expertise to the Sunni insurgency that broke out in the summer of 2003, seeking an income for their families or revenge against the Americans and their Iraqi allies. The disbanding, along with the looting of the army’s bases and depots across much of Iraq, is widely blamed for the tortuously slow pace of standing, equipping and training the country’s new army.
Over past years, thousands of officers from the disbanded army have trickled back to service in an ongoing process of reintegration. Friday’s announcement that 20,000 were being reinstated was the largest known single batch of returnees.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Mohammed al-Askari denied that the announcement was linked to the March 7 election for a 325-seat legislature, insisting that it was made when funding for the 20,000 positions became available.
“This measure has nothing to do with elections, rather it is related to budget allocations,” he said.
A Defense Ministry statement said the rehired personnel would be reinstated as of Sunday, but a senior Iraqi military official said the process of absorbing so many could take weeks and maybe months to complete.
The official said a systematic process to reinstate Saddam-era army personnel has been ongoing for months, with a ministry committee screening officers and noncommissioned officers for ties to Saddam’s regime or involvement in atrocities or war crimes.
He said reinstatements were strictly based on the army’s present requirements and mainly benefited officers from the rank of colonel down to noncommissioned officers. U.S. commanders have in the past pointed out that Iraq’s new army, which is at least 300,000-strong, desperately needed mid-ranking and experienced noncommssioned officers.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Critics, however, said the sudden return of their jobs might influence the votes of the reinstated personnel.
“No doubt, this move is related to the elections and it aims at gaining votes,” said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a candidate from a secular block led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a fierce critic of al-Maliki.
The United States hopes a transparent and credible election will bolster national reconciliation efforts and pave the way for its combat forces to go home by the end of August and the rest by next year’s end.
Regardless of the motive, reinstating the large group of officers would go some way toward helping reconciliation. Al-Maliki has raised Sunni resentment with his relentless denouncements of Baathists in Iraqi politics. But at the same time, he has shown some flexibility on the issue when it comes to the military.
Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has already reinstated many Sunni officers as top commanders in the new army. It also waived “de-Baathification” rules and reinstated generals—Sunnis and Shiites—who once held senior positions in Saddam’s ruling party.
Analyst Nabil Salim, a Baghdad University political science professor, attributed Friday’s announcement to political and election considerations, but also saw it as a boost for the U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces as they fight insurgents.
“It is a good step to provide the new army with badly needed expertise,” he said.
What to do with officials from the Baath and former army officers has been a key source of tension for postwar Iraq.
Hundreds of thousands, including army personnel, were purged from jobs at the government and security forces under a controversial program conceived by Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority—the U.S. occupation government.
Many were allowed to return to government service in 2008. But the issue remains a source of friction, especially after the election ban, ordered by a committee led by two Shiite candidates believed to have ties to Iran.
One of the banned candidates, prominent Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, pulled his party out of the election in protest, but he reversed the decision on Thursday. The decision effectively lifts the lingering threat that minority Sunnis would boycott the vote.
In yet another twist Friday, the spokesman of the Shiite-led political vetting committee that drafted the blacklist, Mudhafar al-Batat, said the panel would file a lawsuit against al-Mutlaq for his alleged involvement in attacks and killings carried out by insurgent groups linked to the Baath party.
Al-Mutlaq has repeatedly denied any links to the insurgency and says he quit the Baath party in the 1970s