1,000 Iraqi Forces Quit Basra Fight
- More Than 1,000 in Iraq's Forces Quit Basra Fight
By STEPHEN FARRELL and JAMES GLANZ
April 4, 2008
BAGHDAD More than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen either refused
to fight or simply abandoned their posts during the inconclusive
assault against Shiite militias in Basra last week, a senior Iraqi
government official said Thursday. Iraqi military officials said the
group included dozens of officers, including at least two senior field
commanders in the battle.
The desertions in the heat of a major battle cast fresh doubt on the
effectiveness of the American-trained Iraqi security forces. The White
House has conditioned further withdrawals of American troops on the
readiness of the Iraqi military and police.
The crisis created by the desertions and other problems with the Basra
operation was serious enough that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki
hastily began funneling some 10,000 recruits from local Shiite tribes
into his armed forces. That move has already generated anger among
Sunni tribesmen whom Mr. Maliki has been much less eager to recruit
despite their cooperation with the government in its fight against
Sunni insurgents and criminal gangs.
A British military official said that Mr. Maliki had brought 6,600
reinforcements to Basra to join the 30,000 security personnel already
stationed there, and a senior American military official said that he
understood that 1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or
underperformed. That would represent a little over 4 percent of the total.
A new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq cites significant
security improvements but concludes that security remains fragile,
several American government officials said.
Even as officials described problems with the planning and performance
of the Iraqi forces during the Basra operation, signs emerged
Wednesday that tensions with Moktada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who
leads the Mahdi Army militia, could flare up again. Mr. Sadr, who
asked his followers to stop fighting on Sunday, called Thursday for a
million Iraqis to march to the Shiite holy city of Najaf next week to
protest what he called the American occupation. He also issued a
veiled threat against Mr. Maliki's forces, whom he accused of
violating the terms of an agreement with the Iraqi government to stand
Estimates by Iraqi military officials of the number of officers who
refused to fight during the Basra operation varied from several dozen
to more than 100. But three officials said that among those who had
been relieved of duty for refusing to fight were Col. Rahim Jabbar and
Lt. Col. Shakir Khalaf, the commander and deputy commander of an
entire brigade affiliated with the Interior Ministry.
A senior military official in Basra asserted that some members of
Colonel Khalaf's unit fought even though he did not. Asked why he
believed Colonel Khalaf did not fight, the official said that the
colonel did not believe the Iraqi security forces would be able to
protect him against threats to his life that he had received for his
involvement in the assault.
"If he fights today, he might be killed later," the official said.
The senior American military official said the number of officers was
"less than a couple dozen at most," but conceded that the figure could
rise as the performance of senior officers was assessed.
But most of the deserters were not officers. The American military
official said, "From what we understand, the bulk of these were from
fairly fresh troops who had only just gotten out of basic training and
were probably pushed into the fight too soon."
"There were obviously others who elected to not fight their fellow
Shia," the official said, but added that the coalition did not see the
failures as a "major issue," especially if the Iraqi government dealt
firmly with them.
Mr. Maliki, who personally directed the Basra operation, which both
American and Iraqi officials have criticized as poorly planned and
executed, acknowledged the desertions without giving a specific number
in public statements on Thursday.
"Everyone who was not on the side of the security forces will go into
the military courts," Mr. Maliki said in a news briefing in the Green
Zone. "Joining the army or police is not a trip or a picnic, there is
something that they have to pay back to commit to the interests of the
state and not the party or the sect."
"They swore on the Koran that they would not support their sect or
their party, but they were lying," he said.
On Sunday, Mr. Sadr gave the prime minister a somewhat face-saving way
out of the Basra fight by ordering the Mahdi fighters to lay down
their weapons after days in which government forces had made no headway.
Mr. Sadr simultaneously made a series of demands, which senior Iraqi
politicians involved in the talks said they believed that Mr. Maliki
had agreed to in advance. But the prime minister has since denied any
involvement in the talks, and government raids on Mahdi Army units
something Mr. Sadr had said must stop have if anything become more
frequent in Basra and Baghdad.
Accordingly, Mr. Sadr's latest statement began by quoting a section of
the Koran promising doom to those who make promises and then break
them. He then complained bitterly that his followers were being
unjustly suppressed and arrested, and warned that nothing would force
them to completely withdraw. But he did not explicitly call for new
American support for Iraqi government forces has also continued, and
on Thursday the American military said it had carried out two
airstrikes on Wednesday in Basra, one "to destroy an enemy structure
housing a sniper engaging Iraqi security forces in Basra" and another
to destroy a machine gun nest.
The Iraqi police said one of the strikes leveled a two-story house in
Basra's Kibla neighborhood, killing three people and wounding three,
all in the same family. The police made no mention of hostile activity.
Ryan C. Crocker, the United States ambassador to Iraq, said Mr. Maliki
took the lead in talks with Shiite tribes and said that the turnout of
thousands of security applicants in Basra was testament to his success.
"It is very clear that they have moved over toward the prime minister
in a very significant way," Mr. Crocker said during a briefing in the
United States Embassy in Baghdad.
"The tribal element he managed himself, as far as I can see," he said.
"You may recall he had a series of meetings with different tribal
leaders, three or four of them, maybe more. That was something he
focused on almost from the beginning, and pressed it hard straight
through and has seen it pay off. Did he have counsel to do it, I don't
know. But he is the one who did it."
Two southern tribal sheiks said that by providing recruits for the
security forces, they were expressing support for the government. But
the sheiks made clear that the promise of good-paying jobs for the
largely unemployed young men in their tribes had also been a powerful
Sheik Kamal al-Helfi, head of the Basra branch of the Halaf tribe,
said by phone that he was still bargaining to increase his tribe's
allotment of 25 jobs in the security forces. "Many people faced a bad
situation since the time of Saddam, and they have no jobs," he said.
Another southern tribal leader, Sheik Adel al-Subihawi, said larger
and more powerful tribes had received quotas as high as 300 jobs.
Mr. Maliki also announced $100 million in economic assistance to
Basra, to be administered by the central government in partnership
with the provincial government, and said the government would create
25,000 jobs in the city over the coming year.
Citing that promise of assistance and the tribal discussions, Mr.
Crocker said, "Were there deals? Like everything else, that is not an
engagement you win purely by military means. The prime minister is
employing the economic dimension of power right now, and good on him,
I think. Money is in many respects his most important weapon and he is
Mr. Maliki said that the tribal recruits would be carefully vetted.
But that was not enough to satisfy some Sunnis farther north who have
been waiting for months to see comparable numbers of their tribesmen
accepted into the government security forces. Tens of thousands of
these Sunnis, including many former insurgents, are working alongside
Iraqi and American troops in a so-called tribal awakening movement
clearly a model for the tribal outreach in Basra.
"Recruiting large number of young people in Basra to fight the JAM
proves once again that the government of Nuri al-Maliki is a sectarian
government, a double-standard one that favors one sect at the expense
of other sects," said Abu Othman, a senior member of Fadhil Awakening
Council, referring to the Mahdi Army by its Arabic acronym.
Abu Othman said four months ago he had presented 100 Sunni names for
enrollment in the Iraqi police and had received no reply.
"The Maliki government wants security forces that are controlled,
manipulated and moved by them," he said.
Reporting was contributed by Michael Gordon, Qais Mizher, Ahmad Fadam
and Karim al-Hilmi from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York
Times from Basra.
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