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U.S. Policies Lead to Dire Straits for Some in Iraq

June 10, 2003|Michael Slackman and John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD -- From the Americans' perspective, recent decisions to disband the defeated Iraqi army and bar full members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from state posts seemed like no-brainers.

But both decrees from the head of the U.S.-led occupation have angered Iraqis and created new problems for American and British authorities trying to run the country.

The decisions are good examples of how almost every action taken by the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority as it goes about the complex task of rebuilding Iraq has unintended, and often troublesome, consequences.

The dissolution of the army has left 400,000 men unemployed and with no prospect for jobs in the near future, imperiling families and creating a reservoir of fighters who could pose a threat to the occupation. The Baath Party decree, which also adds to the pool of potentially dangerous malcontents, has left many institutions without the people they need to make them run.

Graduating students have been unable to get their degrees. Police, electrical plants, even institutions like the nation's premier dental school, have been slow to return to normal. And many people are complaining of injustice by the United States, arguing that Baath Party membership had been almost compulsory for anyone who wished to get ahead.

Ali Abbas worked for nearly two years toward his master's degree in dentistry. He was supposed to graduate this month, but the U.S. decree last month to rid Iraqi institutions of Baath Party influence has stymied him. He lost his faculty advisor -- a high-ranking Baathist -- and now says he has to repeat a year of graduate school.

"Saddam Hussein was a criminal," he said. "I hate him. But it is not my fault .... I am a dentist, a specialist, and I am confused and worried about my future. You saved us. But we need more cooperation from you."

Brig. Gen. Raad Jassem Ani, meanwhile, can't understand the decision to dissolve the military. The 45-year-old general, a member of a military family who lived for the navy until it was absorbed into the army a decade ago, risked his life in 1997 by joining the Free Officers and Civilians Movement, an outlawed, U.S.-backed effort to oust Hussein.

"There is nothing good about dissolving the army. Any military service is a duty -- why should that be dissolved?" he asked at his home, showing a scrapbook with pictures of himself in the 1980s as second-in-command of a naval corvette.

Jassem Ani asserted that the members of the army only fought the Americans when they had guns to their heads, because they did not like Hussein and preferred a U.S. victory to losing their own lives. Only Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary fighters and the Special Republican Guards, bribed and pampered by the regime, remained loyal, he said.

For the regular army, he said, "it was never about the regime. It was about our country. Even today we are proud of our country and we [servicemen] should be used together to rebuild Iraq."

Now, like other military officers, Jassem Ani has been left without a job and without income, except for a small, one-time payment of up to $50 that the occupation authority has promised.

Things are even more dire at the Abdul Kareem household in the Shaab section of Baghdad. Three sons and their brother-in-law were in the army, bringing home a meager $120 a month among them. The brothers live with their parents, wives and children -- supporting 23 people in a four-room house on a dilapidated street where backed-up sewage leaks into the gutters. Thanks to the coalition decree, they are now unemployed.

"How can we live?" asked the brother-in-law, Col. Abdul Kareem Ahmad, now in civilian clothes and crowded by children and his wife's family in their postage-stamp living room.

"We do not have savings for even one day," said his wife, Shada. "We are having to sell our furniture."

In a country where the military was the main employer, it is estimated that 2.5 million people -- 10% of the population -- were dependent on the 400,000-strong army for a meager living. Now the soldiers are joining the ranks of the jobless in a country where most adults are already unemployed.

The shock, both to national pride and pocketbooks, has resulted in almost daily anti-U.S. demonstrations by ousted military officers, sometimes coupled with threats that they will turn their anger against the occupiers, who are already facing an uphill fight to win over the Iraqi people.

"If this continues without any salaries and without any jobs, they will fight," Ahmad warned. "They should at least pay up pensions. This is our right."

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, commander of the occupation troops, acknowledged last week that, by dissolving all agencies and banning their members from participating in civil society, the U.S. administrators might inadvertently have expanded the pool of malcontents willing to take up arms against the occupation.

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