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Iraq: Ex-soldiers to receive pensions

 

By Steven Komarow, USA TODAY

 

 June 24, 2003

BAGHDAD - The U.S.-led administration said Monday that it will begin paying pensions to former members of Saddam Hussein's military. The announcement came less than a week after violent protests led to the shooting deaths of two former Iraqi soldiers.

Former officers and soldiers in Iraq's vanquished army have been among the most organized and vocal groups protesting the allied occupation. Tensions between the former soldiers and the American overseers came to a head Wednesday, when U.S. troops shot and killed two men during a pension protest that turned violent outside the coalition headquarters.

Up to 250,000 former career soldiers will be eligible for pensions beginning July 14, said Walter Slocombe, a former top Pentagon official who announced the plan. Depending on the rank, the payment will be from $50 to $150 a month, about what they earned on active duty. Under Saddam, a captain earned about $50 per month and a conscript $10 per month, in addition to free housing and food. Up to 300,000 former conscripts will be eligible for one-time severance payments, Slocombe said.

Officers ranked colonel or higher will not be eligible for the pension. Under the old regime, political ties were required for promotion to top levels, and the U.S.-led administration still holds top officers suspect.

The payments are valuable in a country where prewar per capita income was $2,500 a year. The State Department estimates an average family in postwar Iraq needs $75 a month to pay for food and rent.

The cost of the pension program will be paid out of Iraq's funds. Oil shipments resumed this week, though it may be some time before steady revenue is generated from oil sales. Once an Iraqi government is formed, it will decide whether to continue the pensions program, Slocombe said.

The U.S.-led administration has been struggling to balance twin aims of ridding the government of Saddam loyalists and the need to win over Iraqis and get the government operating.

The top civilian administrator, Paul Bremer, had announced a sweeping purge of Baath operatives after taking office more than a month ago. He also quickly disbanded Iraq's standing army, which numbered before the war at about 400,000. The moves generated widespread resentment.

The decision to pay the disgruntled former officers comes as the administration announced plans to start training a smaller military to replace Iraq's large armed forces. ''We recognize that the new Iraq will need armed forces,'' Slocombe said.

Some former soldiers may join the new army, though top officers will be banned. Others seeking to re-enlist will be required to sign oaths renouncing the Saddam regime.

The new Iraqi army will begin training next month under the command of U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, former head of the infantry school at Fort Benning in Georgia. Using former U.S. Army sergeants and other veterans, the goal is to train 40,000 infantry soldiers and officers within two years.

The plan is to build an army capable of defending Iraq's borders without threatening its neighbors.

The decision to provide pensions might defuse tensions, and some Iraqi officers expressed satisfaction at the decision. But Abid Radhi, 38, a former army non-commissioned officer, said Saddam's top officers, cut off from the benefits, will remain resentful -- and dangerous. Their previous service was rewarded with houses and cars. ''Send them a pension. Most of them are old anyway, in their 50s or 60s. So it is time for them to leave the army,'' he said.


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