BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq yesterday reinstated 20,000 former army officers dismissed after the U.S.-led invasion, a landmark gesture at reconciliation ahead of the March 7 elections.
It's a move designed to allay some of the bitterness that still rankles Iraq — years after the Bush administration first made the controversial decision to dismantle Saddam Hussein's army.
The 20,000 returnees are the largest known group to rejoin the officer corps.
The timing of the announcement also raised suspicions that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies were just currying favor ahead of the election for a new, 325-seat parliament.
News of the reinstatement was followed by a U.N. announcement that Iraq was gaining momentum with its bid to end U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam's army invaded Kuwait in 1990. The U.N. Security Council pledged "to review, with a view toward lifting" the sanctions once Iraq's safeguards against acquiring weapons of mass destruction are shown to be sufficient.
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 a key factor that fed the alienation many Sunnis felt toward the new Iraq.
That rancor fueled a Sunni insurgency that broke out later that year and still claims lives in Iraq.
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 in explosives, urban warfare and military tactics to the insurgency, seeking an income for their families or revenge against the Americans and their Iraqi allies.
The disbanding of the army, along with the looting of the army's bases and depots across much of Iraq, is widely blamed for the torturously slow pace of forming, equipping and training the country's new army.
Defense Ministry Spokesman Mohammed al-Askari denied yesterday's announcement was linked to the election, insisting funding for the 20,000 positions is only now available.
"This measure has nothing to do with elections, rather it is related to budget allocations," said al-Askari, who did not provide a breakdown of the ranks of the officers being reinstated.
Critics, however, said the sudden return of their jobs might influence the votes of the reinstated officers.
"No doubt, this move is related to the elections and it aims at gaining votes," said Maysoun al-Damlouji, a candidate from a secular bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a fierce critic of al-Maliki.
The skepticism underscored just how bitter feelings have become between Iraq's factions ahead of the election. Many had hoped the vote would be a chance to move past the Shiite-Sunni divisions that have tormented Iraq since Saddam's ouster nearly seven years ago, but instead, the sectarian mistrust has become more stark.
Al-Maliki angered Sunnis after a Shiite-led commission barred 440 candidates — most Sunnis — from running because of suspected ties to Saddam's former ruling Baath Party.
A Defense Ministry statement said the rehired personnel would be reinstated by Sunday, but a senior Iraqi military official said absorbing so many could take weeks or months to complete.
In recent years, thousands of officers from the disbanded army have trickled back to service in an ongoing process of reintegration. The official said a ministry committee has been screening 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. 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 noncommissioned officers.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
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 help reconciliation. Al-Maliki has raised Sunni resentment with his relentless denouncements of Baathists in Iraqi politics. But many were allowed to return to government service in 2008, and al-Maliki has also shown flexibility 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.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.