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1,000 Iraqi Forces Quit Basra Fight

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    More Than 1,000 in Iraq s Forces Quit Basra Fight By STEPHEN FARRELL and JAMES GLANZ April 4, 2008
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 6, 2008
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      More Than 1,000 in Iraq's Forces Quit Basra Fight
      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
      using it."

      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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