More than 1,000 in Iraq's forces quit Basra fight
By Stephen Farrell and James Glanz
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 Bush administration 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 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 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 between 1,000 to 1,500 Iraqi forces had deserted or underperformed. That would represent a little over 4 percent of the total.
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. 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 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 Colonel Rahim Jabbar and Lieutenant Colonel 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 Khalaf's unit fought even though he did not. Asked why he believed 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.
1) More than 1,000 in Iraq's forces quit Basra fight