Iraqi desertions raise fresh doubts

The Baltimore Sun

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 yesterday. 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 U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces. The Bush administration has conditioned further withdrawals of U.S. 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 Nouri al-Maliki hastily began funneling about 10,000 recruits from local Shiite tribes into his armed forces. That move has already generated anger among Sunni tribesmen, whom al-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 al-Maliki had brought 6,600 reinforcements to Basra to join the 30,000 security personnel already stationed there, and a senior U.S. 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 Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric who leads the Mahdi Army militia, could flare up again. Al-Sadr, who asked his followers on Sunday to stop fighting, called yesterday for a million Iraqis to march to the Shiite holy city of Najaf next week to protest what he called the U.S. occupation. He also issued a veiled threat against al-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.

The senior U.S. military official said the number of officers was "less than a couple dozen at most" but conceded the figure could rise as the performance of senior officers was assessed.

But most of the deserters were not officers. The U.S. 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.

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