It was meant to be a moment of reconciliation between the old regime and the new, a gathering of nearly 1,000 former Iraqi army officers and tribal leaders in Baghdad to voice their concerns over today’s Iraq. But it did not go as planned.
General after general rose to his feet and raised his voice to shout at the way Iraq was being run and to express his fear of escalating war. “They were fools to break up our great army and form an army of thieves and criminals,” said one senior officer. “They are traitors,” added another.
The sense of hatred felt by these influential men, mostly Sunni Arabs, towards the new order installed by the US since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 is palpable and it bodes ill for Iraq. The country is entering a critical political period that will see a deeply divisive referendum on the constitution on 15 October, the trial of Saddam four days later and an election for the National Assembly on 15 December. The Sunnis fear the constitution means the break up of Iraq and their own marginalisation.
The meeting, in a heavily guarded hall close to the Tigris, was called by General Wafiq al-Sammarai, a former head of Iraqi military intelligence under Saddam who fled Baghdad in 1994 to join the opposition. He is now military adviser to President Jalal Talabani.
His eloquent call for support for the government in his fight against terrorism did not go down well. He sought to reassure his audience that no attack was planned on the Sunni Arab cities of central Iraq such as Baquba, Samarra and Ramadi, as the Iraqi Defence minister had threatened. He said people had been fleeing the cities but “there will be no attack on you, no use of aircraft, no bombardment by the Americans”. The audience was having none of it.
General Salam Hussein Ali sprang to his feet and bellowed that there was “no security, no electricity and no clean water and no government”. The only solution was to have the old Iraqi army back in its green uniforms, not those supplied by the Americans. He was dubious about how far Iraq was a democratic country, since nobody paid attention to the grievances of the people.
General Sammarai had called for criticism but seemed dismayed at its ferocity, at one moment exclaiming “this is chaos,” though he later apologised and said he supposed it was democracy. He said most of the trouble in Iraq was caused by foreign terrorists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, prompting another officer to mutter: “I don’t think Zarqawi will threaten us because we are against occupation.”
The meeting was important because the officer corps of the old Iraqi army consider themselves as keeper of the flame of Iraqi nationalism. One of them asked General Sammarai to stop using the American word “general” and use the Arabic word lewa’a instead.
In conversation, the officers made clear that they considered armed resistance to the occupation legitimate. General Sammarai told The Independent that he drew a distinction between terrorists blowing up civilians and nationalist militants fighting US troops.
The past three years have been a disaster for the old Iraqi army. The US viceroy, Paul Bremer, disbanded the army and security forces in May 2003. In a single stroke, hundreds of thousands of professional soldiers were out of a job. Some were reduced to driving taxis. General Hassan Kassim said he was now receiving a pension of just $40 a month.
Everybody at the meeting said there must be no distinction between Sunni, Shia and Kurd. But as they spoke it became evident that the officers are frightened of being persecuted as Sunni. One said there were random arrests in Adhamiyah, a Sunni strong-hold. Another asked why all the talk was about Zarqawi when people were being killed by the Badr Brigade, a powerful Shia militia.
Sheikh Ahmed al-Sammarai, the imam of the Sunni mosque of the Umm al-Qura, the headquarters of the powerful Muslim Scholars Association, first called for Sunni and Shia solidarity. But he added that he had just spoken to a Sunni from Ramadi who was arrested by the police and tortured. The imam claimed the police had said: “For every Shia killed in Fallujah or Ramadi, a Sunni would be killed in Baghdad.”
General Sammarai concluded: “All the officers are against the American occupation. But when they come to my office they say that if the Americans leave there will be civil war.”
* An Iraqi female suicide bomber blew herself up outside a US military office in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar yesterday, killing herself and at least five others and wounding 53, police said. It was believed to be the first attack by a female suicide bomber in Iraq since the insurgency began. The US said the bomb targeted civilians at a civil military operations centre while they were filing for compensation over lost relatives or damaged property.