New York Times
April 4, 2008
By Stephen Farrell and James Glanz
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 down.
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 fighting.
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 inducement.
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.