Iraq's new leader wants to call some of its old army back to duty to help restore peace in his war-torn land. Disbanding that defeated force 13 months ago was a mistake made in Washington, says a U.S. Army colonel who held a pivotal role in Baghdad (search) at the time.
"It was because ideology ruled where reality should have," Col. Paul F. Hughes, then strategic policy director for the U.S. occupation authority, said of last year's decision.
Other key players said the order came not from then-Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer (search), as believed, but from top-level civilian officials at the Pentagon, and that it was done without consulting U.S. military chiefs.
With no Iraqi security forces on hand, the U.S. military was left almost alone to confront an Iraqi insurgency and crime wave that built through 2003 — fed in part by armed soldiers of the disbanded army.
"Anyone who ever worked in any country after a losing war knows you have to do something with the old soldiers," Hughes told The Associated Press. "Otherwise, they're out of work and they will do what people do who know how to use guns."
Iyad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, says he hopes to reconstitute three or four divisions of the old army — up to 40,000 troops, about 10 percent of the huge force maintained under the ousted Baathist government of Saddam Hussein.
Allawi first spoke out against the U.S. decision last October, as a member of Iraq's governing council. By May, before taking over as interim prime minister, he told The Los Angeles Times, "We need an army, full stop."
His approval last week of legislation permitting martial law and military governors makes an army recall "imperative," said Ray Salvatore Jennings, an expert in postwar transitions with the government-financed U.S. Institute of Peace (search).
"If the army had not been fully dissolved, we would be starting from a far more advantageous position," Jennings said in Baghdad.
Last August, the U.S. command in Iraq began training a "New Iraqi Army" of light infantry, but the slow-paced program has produced only an estimated 7,000 troops, far short of the 40,000-member military the Americans once projected for October 2004.
Meanwhile, the first trained battalion fell apart when more than one-third of the men deserted, and the 2nd Battalion refused to fight alongside U.S. Marines against insurgents in the city of Fallujah this April.
The U.S. command says other newly organized security forces, including police and a lightly armed national guard, are more than 200,000 strong. But they are short on equipment and training.
"They were not intended to fight a pitched battle against well-armed insurgents," the U.S. General Accounting Office notes in a new assessment of postwar Iraq, where 138,000 U.S. troops bear the brunt of the fighting.
Jay Garner, the retired Army general who was the first U.S. administrator in Baghdad, went to Iraq in April 2003 planning to use the old army in a rebuilding role, keeping troops organized and paid.
In the face of the U.S.-British invasion, that army had disintegrated, its men gone home, often with weapons. But Hughes, now at the National Defense University in Washington, said he and others in Baghdad in those early weeks nonetheless coordinated with a committee of Iraqi generals and kept track of units.
"I had more than 100,000 names that this committee had pulled together," he said. Then the May 23, 2003, decree came down dissolving the army, signed by the newly arrived Bremer.
"Neither Jay nor I was consulted on that," Hughes said.
Bremer's senior security adviser, Walter B. Slocombe, told AP it was not his boss's decision.
"It was approved specifically at very high levels at the Department of Defense," said Slocombe, now back in private law practice in Washington. Hughes said it was driven by "ideology," a belief "that everything connected with power structures of Iraq was bad."
Neither would discuss which civilian Pentagon officials made the decision. Gen. Peter Pace, the Pentagon's No. 2 officer, said last February the top U.S. military men, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were not consulted.
Slocombe, who still defends last year's decision, said recalling Iraqi units risks setting the stage for collisions between U.S. and Iraqi troops.
He cited Fallujah, from which the Marines withdrew this spring, to cede control to ex-officers in an ad-hoc Iraqi "brigade." Anti-American insurgents now operate relatively freely from within the city.
One Fallujah may be necessary to "isolate the infection," he said. "But that's different from saying you want one, two, how many Fallujahs all over the country.
"You get situations where (Iraqi security forces) end up on the wrong side," Slocombe said.
Jennings, whose Institute of Peace is helping in Iraq's political transition, sees another potential outcome: U.S. military withdrawal.
"Allawi knows that the more quickly he can create and rely on Iraqi security forces, the faster he can insist the U.S. downsize and depart," he said.
Whether the U.S. command will welcome or oppose an Iraqi army recall remains to be seen. It could prove a test of Iraq's new limited sovereignty.
A spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Yoswa, said Friday the Pentagon would have no comment on Allawi's plan, nor on the year-ago decision-making.