U-Turn: Iraq PM seeks to reinstate disbanded army officers

Efforts by Iraq's premier to court disbanded army officers from Sunni areas of the country can help boost security and support for the Shiite leader ahead of upcoming elections, analysts and observers say.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called for officers from Iraq's mostly-Sunni north and west who served under now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein to be reinstated as long as they have no Iraqi blood on their hands.
His call is seen as a pragmatic bid to damp violence in areas which remain among Iraq's least stable, but also a strategy to boost the popularity of Maliki, who is from the country's Shiite majority, ahead of provincial and national polls in 2013 and 2014.
"Maliki's initiative comes from a need to draw on the experience of these officers in boosting security, especially in Sunni-dominated areas," said Hamid Fadhel, a politics professor at Baghdad University.
But "there is a political goal, along with the security goal, with this initiative," he added. "Maliki wants to present a nationalist platform, to break the limits of just one sect in the next elections."
Ahead of the last polls in March 2010, Maliki flirted with running on a cross-sectarian slate before leading a mostly-Shiite alliance to a narrow second-place finish.
He later managed to form a government by banding with other Shiite parties, outmanoeuvring the mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc which had finished first in the polls.
While his National Alliance coalition remains the largest in parliament, it won little support in Iraq's Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar, Nineveh, Salaheddin, Diyala, and the disputed province of Kirkuk.
And though violence is dramatically lower than its peak in 2006 and 2008, when tens of thousands were killed in brutal communal bloodshed, unrest remains higher in Iraq's north and west than in the Shiite-dominated south.
Maliki also faces persistent accusations of sidelining Sunni Arab politicians, namely Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi who dismissed a death sentence issued against him for allegedly running death squads as political.
So far Maliki's proposals have seen little progress.
A committee headed by acting Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi has called for procedures to be finalised to bring 209 former army officers back into the security forces in Nineveh, while similar steps are due in other provinces.
In the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad, more than 950 ex-officers applied to be reinstated, said local official Ziyad Maleh who is responsible for processing the requests.
Officials in Anbar and Kirkuk declined to say how many officers applied for reinstatement while authorities in Salaheddin would only say that dozens signed up.
"This is a good move, and it is necessary at this time to call on the experiences of former officers in maintaining the stability and dignity of the country," said Saadun Majid al-Ajili, an ex-major in Saddam's army, who applied to rejoin the military.
Others, however, insist the move carries a political dimension.
"Political pressures are what prompted the prime minister to look for ideas that help national reconciliation, like the return of Sunni officers," a former colonel from Saddam's hometown of Tikrit said.
"Why else, after all these years, did he call for this?" said the ex-officer, who is also applying to be reinstated but declined to be identified.
Hamed al-Mutlak, an MP who sits on parliament's security and defence committee who once served under Saddam, said he believes Maliki has good intentions but that his proposal "does not seem serious."
"The prime minister is certainly also looking ahead, to try to be influential in Sunni areas by investing in anything that helps him get the support of the Sunni component."
Iraq's army was founded in January 1921 and rose to become one of the most fearsome in the Middle East under Saddam, a Sunni like much of the officer corps.
After the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam in 2003, the army was disbanded by Paul Bremer, the former US administrator in Iraq.
Since then it has been rebuilt from the ground up and is now around 300,000-strong, with little being made to bring Saddam-era officers back into the fold.
Another ex-officer, Karim al-Juburi, dismissed Maliki's plans as ones that "do not go past the ink on a piece of paper -- it is just about achieving electoral and political goals."
Juburi, an ex-major from Nineveh, said he had previously applied three times to be reinstated to no avail, and had submitted his papers once again.
"I will believe it is true when it is actually implemented," he said.