BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) -Iraq’s army has “opened its doors,” the prime minister said Saturday, appealing to troops who served under Saddam Hussein for help in curbing the rampant violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reached out to the officers and soldiers who lost their posts after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam nearly four years ago.
He imposed few conditions on the return of former military personnel, only cautioning that those allowed to serve in the new army should be loyal to the country and conduct themselves professionally.
He also said the size of the army might limit the number accepted but those unable to join would be given pensions.
“The new Iraqi army has opened its doors for members of the former army, officers and soldiers, and the national unity government is prepared to absorb those who have the desire to serve the nation,” al-Maliki said in remarks on the opening day of a national reconciliation conference.
He expressed deep respect for former army officers and said the government needed “their energies, expertise and skills in order to complete the building of our armed forces.”
Former troops already have the option of joining the army, but the outreach and pension offer was an apparent concession to a longstanding demand by Sunni Arab politicians who argue that the neglect of former army soldiers was spreading discontent and pushing them into the arms of the insurgency.
As the U.S. public grows more impatient with the war, the administration is hoping it can draw down U.S. forces by transferring security responsibility to the Iraqis. But concerns have been raised about their ability to cope with the sectarian attacks and insurgent violence that have been on the rise.
L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s former U.S. governor, dissolved Iraq’s 400,000-strong army soon after American forces overthrew Saddam’s regime in April 2003. The decision is widely seen as a mistake because it drove many disaffected officers into the ranks of the insurgency, fearing they had no future in the new Iraq.
The top ranks of the old army were dominated by Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arabs. Some former officers are known to be helping insurgents with planning, tactics and instruction on explosives and weapons.
Tens of thousands of lower-ranking soldiers, mostly Shiites, later found their way back to service when Iraq began to rebuild its army and police forces.