BAGHDAD -- The 100 or so former military officers standing in the midday sun didn't look like much of a menace. But the threat was there: Pay up, or else.
As the temperature soared well above 100 degrees, they waited sullenly at the entrance to the former presidential palace compound, where the U.S. occupation government headquarters are located behind coils of razor wire.
"We're not asking for the Americans' money," said Lt. Gen. Muhammed Abdelkadim, a former commander of the Baghdad air defense. "It's our money. It's our pay."
None of the nearly half-million members of Iraq's military, he said, had been paid since March 1.
But Abdelkadim and his colleagues, a dapper group in neat slacks and pressed shirts, are likely to be disappointed. From the sound of recent American statements, they may be unemployed for a long time.
U.S. Refuses to Pay Salaries
On Wednesday, U.S. officials said they will not pay past or current salaries of the former army, secret police and presidential guard. The move essentially disbands those forces -- but does not provide any formal means of disarming the ex-combatants.
The risks of such a policy were apparent Thursday as Abdelkadim and his colleagues stood in protest outside the U.S. compound. One of their members had been allowed through the razor wire to deliver a petition. They expected prompt action, he said, in the matter-of-fact tone of someone who doesn't expect to be disobeyed.
Informed of the American announcement that former civilian government workers would soon be paid but military members would not, Abdelkadim spluttered. The men around him exploded.
"The Americans can't cheat us," yelled Lt. Col. Basem Al-Lamy, another former officer of Baghdad's air defense.
"We couldn't do anything against American technology during the war," said Al-Lamy, referring to the U.S. missiles that made mincemeat of Iraqi anti- aircraft defenses. "But now, there's nothing between me and the U.S. soldiers on the street. Their technology won't stop me from killing them."
"We thought the Americans were going to get rid of our oppressor," said Col. Nihad Al-Saadi, explaining why so many of Saddam Hussein's soldiers chose not to fight.
"But now we see they just wanted to take our money. What will we eat? We will have no choice but to fight."
Some of Al-Saadi's former comrades may already be doing just that.
Reports of Sabotage
On Wednesday, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, said loosely organized groups of "regime elements" have waged a campaign of attacks on U.S. troops and sabotage of the country's tottering infrastructure.
The officers' unhappiness is one more example of how sentiment on Baghdad's streets has swung dramatically in recent weeks from gratitude to anger. With increasing bitterness, residents complain about the Americans' failure to bring the city back to anything resembling normality.
Gangs still roam freely, looting, stealing, mugging and kidnapping. Power blackouts are common and gasoline is scarce. Most businesses remain closed and nearly every government office is a burned wreck.
Mobs of unemployed people gather daily around the U.S. compound and around the Palestine Hotel, as former laborers, scientists, clerks and soldiers clamor for jobs.
"The Americans don't realize what they're playing with," said Abdelkadim. "The people are desperate. What will the people do if a leader comes again to fight against the Americans? We will follow him."
Asked if they would support the return of Hussein, there was an immediate reply of "no, no, no!" from the crowd. "If Saddam Hussein comes again, we will kill him."
First Public Appearance
The officers' protest was the first time since Baghdad fell last month that former military officials have felt emboldened enough to appear in public. Those who aren't in hiding or in U.S. custody seem to be surveying the chaos, trying to decide their next move.
In a downtown restaurant, Gen. Alaa Abdelkadeer, a commander of the Republican Guard's Baghdad Brigade, warned that time is running out for the Americans to demonstrate improvement in people's daily lives.
"Look at that," he said, pointing out the window at a disheveled teenager begging at the restaurant entrance. "He never was a beggar before. Nobody in Baghdad was. But now he is capable of doing anything. Who knows? Even fighting and dying."
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle