20,000 Iraqi officers put back on payroll

The move provokes an outcry, but the minister of defence denies it is opportunism, but just budgeting,

BAGHDAD // A decision to put 20,000 sacked Iraqi army officers back on government payrolls as of today, has been widely interpreted as an act of political opportunism, despite official assurances it was not timed to coincide with the upcoming election. The ministry of defence announced the move on Friday and was immediately accused of electioneering - attempting to win votes in support of prime minister Nouri al Maliki. Defence Minister Mohammad al Askari insisted the step was a matter of budgeting and unrelated to the ballot - now just a week away - a claim that was dismissed by incredulous politicians and former Iraqi soldiers.

"It's an act of supreme propaganda, it's a ploy to buy votes," said Gen Jasim Mohammad, a former officer who was purged from Iraq's armed forces after the 2003-US led invasion, along with every other soldier. "The government has had four years to do this, but decides it will a week before the election. How can that be a coincidence? Buying votes is illegal but this is an attempt to buy the support of 20,000 soldiers and their families. It's a trick that might be worth 100,000 votes if people fall for it."

Among politicians from all sides competing against Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition, there was a sense of anger and disbelief. Shiite candidates expressed alarm over the prospect of Baathists being returned en mass to the military, while Sunni's regarded it as an unashamed attempt by the prime minister to retain his position "at all costs". "Maliki wants to get the Baathists on his side with this reinstatement of the officers," said Hassan al Rubaie, a sitting MP standing for reelection under the Iraqi National Alliance, the main sectarian Shiite list. "I am certain there will be questions to ask about the legality of this, under the constitution all officers should be vetted by the Justice and Accountability [de-Baathification] Commission and there is no indication this review has been done.

"There is no question in my mind that this is an advertisement, it's a part of Maliki's campaign." Abdel Karim Samarie, an MP allied to vice president Tariq al Hashemi, part of the Iraqiyya alliance, said he and other representatives in parliament had lobbied repeatedly for the officers' reinstatement, only for their requests to be denied. "For the last three years we have been calling for this", he said.

"There have been cross party negotiations with Mr Maliki's government to try to make this happen but they were always rejected. "Why does he suddenly agree now? What has changed? The only thing is that there is an election on. This is part of the game." Within the ministry of defence however, there was an insistence that, rather than being narrowly political, a step had been taken that the whole country should agree with and view as non-partisan.

"These are not Baathists coming back, they will still be checked by the Justice and Accountability Commission," Ahmad al Khafraji, a defence ministry official, told The National. "These men have badly needed experience that will be important to the security forces in making the country safe. "We need their skills and the extra manpower. These are not former regime loyalists, they are trained soldiers who had to join the Baath party to get work."

A heated election campaign has been characterised by a return to sectarianism that has concerned many ordinary Iraqis, politicians and analysts. In particular the exclusion of scores of election candidates from the ballot by the Justice and Accountability Commission over alleged links to Baathists has stirred controversy. Shiite candidates control the commission and made their recommendations for exclusion based on unpublished evidence, with the appeal process cut from 60 days to less than a week. Senior politician Salah al Mutlaq, an MP in the current parliament, was the most prominent figure to be barred. He initially withdrew his party from the election, but changed his mind last week.

Gen Mohammad, the former army officer sceptical of the reinstatement, said it failed to address the underlying issues of an army that, like Iraq, had come to be excessively defined according to sectarianism. "The government under Saddam Hussein introduced a system to know who was Sunni, who was Shiite, who was Christian and so on," he said. "If Maliki really wanted to heal the country and the army and improve security, he could have reinstated these officers a long time ago and he could have stopped collecting information about soldiers' sect and religion.

"By reinstating 20,000 officers, he is trying to buy votes, rather than thinking about the future of Iraq." Phil Sands reported from Damascus nlatif@thenational.ae, psands@thenational.ae