Q General, can you confirm the report that officers of the former Iraqi army are being invited now to join the new army?
Why — if so, why was that decision made, and how concerned are you about the reliability of those folks?
MR. DIRITA: We do know that it has happened. It’s a conscious and independent decision that’s been made by the minister of Iraqi Defense. It could affect, we compute, as many as 350,000 Iraqi mid- grade officers, should they decide to all accept his invitation.
It has potentially some positives associated with it. I understand that there is a need, always, for experienced mid-level officers in the Iraqi army. A significant percentage of those — I couldn’t say how many — would likely be Sunni, and that would make the army more secular, perhaps, than it is right now, would give that segment of the population greater engagement in the governmental progress — process. And we think that’s a positive thing. So, at this point we’ll wait and see how many take the minister up on his offer to re-join.
Q Do you think it was a good decision to invite these guys back? Sounds like it.
MR. DIRITA: My personal belief is that it’s — first of all, it’s an Iraqi decision, but secondly, I think it probably is a good decision at this point.
Q Let me ask — let me ask you another side of the question, then. Was it a mistake to disband the army when that decision was made, how much did that maybe hurt the development of the army and maybe help the insurgency?
MR. DIRITA: You know, we’ve gone around and around on that, Al. And people will be able to form their own conclusions. General Conway is free to offer his conclusions. He wasn’t there, I wasn’t — actually, I was there. But, I mean —
GEN. CONWAY: I was there, too. (Laughter.)
MR. DIRITA: Okay, you — we were both there; we’ve got an opinion. But to say was it a mistake is — is — people have their visions. You know, we’ve — what — what did happen in large part is the Iraqi army disbanded itself; in many cases, they left. But decisions were made then that seemed appropriate at the time, and now the Iraqi government is making decisions that seem appropriate to this point. And the — you know, at some point the sort of “who shot John” gets a bit tedious. And it’s a very important thing to decide here’s where we are, and let’s go forward. Having learned all the things we’ve learned, here where we sit today.
I’ve written before about the decision to disband the old Iraqi army in favor of starting over from square one. I continue to believe that this was probably the best solution if we intended to create a free and democratic Iraq. As the new Iraqi government gets stronger, and the distance from the Saddam regime increases, I can see why it might make sense to increase recruiting efforts aimed at members of the previous military. I can certainly see how more Sunnis in the military might give those in the minority a stonger sense of belonging. But I’d also remain cautious. Very cautious.
Q General Conway’s view?
GEN. CONWAY: It’s a mixed answer. Some people would tell you that there was no Iraqi army at the time when it was dismissed. I mean, we saw large numbers of those soldiers going home, et cetera, et cetera. There was concern that you could very quickly re-create the conditions, which we had just disrupted, if two senior people came back in, the Sunnis once again started — the Sunni leadership who had control started to re-gain control. On the other hand, the Iraqi army was the most respected institution in Iraq. And so, there is advantages to having that stability, that respect that the people inherently have for their army, there to help them through what were some really tough times.
So I think it’s — I think it’s a mixed bag.
MR. DIRITA: I’ll tell you, when Bremer announced that he had the Iraqi — what became the core of the Iraqi Governing Council, and it represented the full range of the Iraqi cultural, social, political and ethnic religious strata, I mean, everybody was represented — you had Shi’a, you had senior Sunni, you had secular Sunni, you had Kurd — every one of them, when Bremer talked to them and had them in and said this is what we’re thinking of doing, everyone of them said it’s the right decision and it needs to be more. That went to de- Ba’athification and the whole discussion about moving past what existed at the time.
Now, each of those individuals is free to say, “Geez, I’d have done it differently,” and “I think it could have been done — if you had done it this way and not that way.” Fair enough. But the general view that this was a new beginning for Iraq, and that the CPA authority was what it was, in response to U.N. resolutions that the CPA had the obligation to make decisions, and in the best knowledge that existed at the time, this is the decision that’s going to be made. And we’ll leave it to historians and to people like you that never —
Q Larry, are you saying Sunnis supported de-Ba’athification?
MR. DIRITA: I’m saying everybody had a view as to whether or not it should go this far or that far. That’s what I’m saying. And I’m being very careful. Everybody is free to flyspeck it, and they will and they did. But the general conclusion — the general response he got when he announced it to all these leaders was: It’s important; it has to happen. If I were you, I’d do it this way. If I were you, I’d only do it this way.
But the general view that we need a new beginning in Iraq because there’s very few of the institutions that aren’t tainted by Saddam Hussein. So, you know, the historians and people like you can flyspeck it forever.
“Mixed bag”. Very much so.
UPDATE: Also noted in the press conference is the fact that the 77 reconditioned T-72 tanks from Hungary have just arrived and are about to be received by the Iraqi 9th Division. The General’s quote says they were sold to Iraq, but earlier it had been reported that Hungary had donated them.