Iraqi Unit Flees Post, Despite American's Plea

Iraqi Unit Flees Post, Despite American's Plea
April 16th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Iraqi Unit Flees Post, Despite American's Plea

Iraqi Unit Flees Post, Despite American's Plea
New York Times
April 16, 2008
Pg. 1
By Michael R. Gordon
BAGHDAD — A company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions on Tuesday night in Sadr City, defying American soldiers who implored them to hold the line against Shiite militias.
The retreat left a crucial stretch of road on the front lines undefended for hours and led to a tense series of exchanges between American soldiers and about 50 Iraqi troops who were fleeing.
Capt. Logan Veath, a company commander in the 25th Infantry Division, pleaded with the Iraqi major who was leading his troops away from the Sadr City fight, urging him to return to the front.
“If you turn around and go back up the street those soldiers will follow you,” Captain Veath said. “If you tuck tail and cowardly run away they will follow up that way, too.”
Captain Veath’s pleas failed, and senior American and Iraqi commanders mounted an urgent effort to regain the lost ground. An elite Iraqi unit was rushed in and with the support of the Americans began to fight its way north.
This episode was a blow to the American effort to push the Iraqis into the lead in the struggle to wrest control of parts of Sadr City from the Mahdi Army militia and what Americans and Iraqis say are Iranian-backed groups.
That approach was intended to build up the Iraqi military’s fighting capacity and put an Iraqi face on the operation in Sadr City, which is occurring in a Baghdad bastion of support for Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. Two weeks ago, more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers deserted their posts during the fight against militias in Basra.
Tuesday’s desertions in Sadr City, although involving a particularly hesitant Iraqi unit, left many of the Americans soldiers wondering about the tenacity of their Iraqi allies.
“It bugs the hell out of me,” said Sgt. George Lewis, Captain Veath’s platoon sergeant in Company B, Third Platoon, First Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment. “We don’t see any progress being made at all. We hear these guys in firefights. We know if we are not up there helping these guys out we are making very little progress.”
Company B moved into Sadr City at the end of March as part of a broader effort to secure the southernmost portion of the densely populated Sadr City.
That area has been used by militias to fire 107-millimeter rockets toward the Green Zone. The Americans’ mission is to stop the rocket firings and help the Iraqi government establish a modicum of control.
Some Iraqi soldiers have fought hard. American soldiers have been regularly coaching them on how to protect their patrol bases, conserve ammunition and evacuate their wounded.
One big problem is that the Iraqi troops have responded to militia gunfire with such intense fusillades that the soldiers have endangered civilians, American soldiers and even their own forces. The barrage of Iraqi Army fire has become such a regular occurrence that some American soldiers are worried that militia fighters have tried to insert themselves between nearby Iraqi units to induce the Iraqi soldiers to fire on one another.
In a recent visit to the Iraqi forward position, First Sgt. Martin Angulo of Company B sought to coach the Iraqis on how to use their newly acquired M-16s to direct precision fire at a militia sniper who had been tormenting the Iraqi forces from an alleyway.
The problem on Tuesday, however, was more serious: an Iraqi retreat that left a gaping hole in the most forward position on a critical thoroughfare in the Tharwa section of Sadr City.
The episode began when Major Sattar, the leader of an Iraqi company that had taken up positions 700 yards in front of the Americans, suddenly appeared at Company B’s field headquarters in the southern part of Sadr City.
The major’s company had replaced a more battle-hardened Iraqi unit just two days earlier, and he had been unhappy to find that he would be occupying a position to the front of the better trained and equipped Americans.
“Every house in Sadr City probably has one of their sons in the Mahdi Army,” he observed when American soldiers visited his position on Monday. “So it is hard to convince people to believe in the Iraqi Army.”
When he arrived at the Americans’ position on Tuesday, the Iraqi officer reported that many of his soldiers had taken off their uniforms and deserted after other Iraqi Army commanders failed to send reinforcements during a gun battle with militias that he said had lasted several hours.
Major Sattar calmly explained that he was leading the remainder of his 80-man company away from the fight. As if to underscore the point, a convoy of Iraqi vehicles piled high with furniture was parked in front of the American position.
Abandoning the stronghold, however, would allow the militias to move in again and seed the road with roadside bombs. Other Iraqi units had stood their ground through several long firefights, and Captain Veath was surprised that the major’s unit was leaving after holding off another militia attack.
“You went through a whole battle and are now removing yourself?” Captain Veath asked incredulously. “Are any of your men dead?”
Major Sattar acknowledged that his unit had several wounded but none killed. But he and other Iraqi soldiers insisted that they were poorly equipped to battle the militias. Iraqi forces, they said, were short of ammunition, had only a few armored vehicles and were up against militia fighters they said were equipped and trained by the Iranians.
“We are not afraid,” the major responded.
He also complained that he had no means to communicate directly with the American troops.
“That is an excuse, and you know it,” Captain Veath shot back. He argued that one of the major’s platoons was situated just 100 yards from some of the American Stryker vehicles and that the two sides had agreed that the Iraqis could send a runner over to the vehicles to ask for help if necessary.
The Iraqi commander returned to his convoy and Captain Veath followed, promising a Stryker escort if the Iraqi soldiers would only return to their positions.
Dozens of excited Iraqi soldiers began to join in the discussion. As tempers flared and voices rose, Sergeant Angulo ordered the company’s soldiers to stay close to Captain Veath.
The Iraqi convoy drove off, and the Americans began to scramble to find a new Iraqi unit to plug the gap. Senior Iraqi commanders hurried to the scene and a special Iraqi reconnaissance unit was ordered to advance up the road. With the help of an American bomb-clearing unit, Stryker vehicles and attack helicopters, the Iraqis rumbled north, spraying rounds as they went. According to the last reports monitored by Company B, the Iraqis were stopped short by several roadside bombs, and planned to resume the push in daylight.
The furious Iraqi fire on their drive toward the abandoned base endangered the American soldiers who were bringing supplies to one of their platoons, and an American officer issued a plea over the tactical radio.
“They are lighting up everything,” he said. “Tell them to knock it off.”

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