During his prime-time press conference last week, George W. Bush promised that, someday, "Iraqi security is going to be handled by the Iraq people themselves."
That day isn't coming any time soon.
As fierce fighting erupted in parts of Iraq in early April, the U.S.-led coalition tried to deploy U.S.-trained Iraqi units to quell the fighting. The results were disastrous: During the violence, many Iraqi police and civil defense personnel abandoned their posts, or joined Shiite militants loyal to renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. What's more, some soldiers of the first U.S.-trained battalion of the New Iraqi Army (NIA) deserted their unit or refused to follow orders. "There were a number of troops, there were a number of police that didn't stand up when their country called," concedes coalition military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt.
In exclusive interviews with NEWSWEEK, Iraqi soliders and civilian witnesses described what happened.
When bloodshed erupted during the first week in April, the U.S. military command scrambled to put down local uprisings led by Shiite militants in the south and by Sunni extremists in and around Fallujah. U.S. authorities wanted to give Iraqi troops a pivotal role in maintaining security in Fallujah and in the largely Shiite community of Shulla on the northwest edge of Baghdad. The idea was to show Iraqis taking responsibility for security matters, and to help U.S. personnel lower their profile in preparation for the Coalition Provisional Authority's transfer of sovereignty to Iraqi institutions on June 30.
The job fell to the 2nd Battalion of the New Iraqi Army, deployed at the Taji Military Complex northwest of Baghdad. Its 620 men had graduated from the Kirkush boot camp in January, and were the first Iraqi army soldiers to be deployed in a field military operation since the U.S. began reconstituting the post-war army. One of the first signs of trouble was a terse U.S. statement, issued on April 11, confirming that an Iraqi army unit had refused to deploy to the conflict in Fallujah after being shot at in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad. But battalion members, some of whom were fired, and other eyewitnesses from Taji, paint a much more complicated and dramatic portrait of the incident.
Fighting between coalition troops and pro-Sadr Shiite militiamen had already broken out April 4 in southern Shiite cities and in Baghdad's sprawling slums Sadr City and Shulla when the battalion received news of its mission. "We were first informed that we would have a task the next day," recalls army recruit Khadhim al-Zubaidy who has left his unit and returned home in the southern city of Kut. "The American officers did not reveal anything about the nature of the task they wanted us to accomplish, and we didn't even know where we were going," says Zubaidy, a Shiite. (Despite requests from NEWSWEEK to interview U.S. officers at the Taji base about the incident, they declined to comment.)
The Iraqi soldiers were brought to Shulla, an impoverished community where adrenaline-charged Shiite militants were angry about the detention of one of Sadr's top aides. Zubaidy said that his U.S. officers ordered Iraqi soldiers to open fire on the angry crowd in Shulla. "The American officers hysterically ordered us to shoot the 'traitors'," he recalls, "We were not asked beforehand to go fight our people in Shulla. If we had been....we would have resigned at the camp right away."
Many Iraqi soldiers refused to fire, abandoned their weapons and fled from the scene, says Zubaidy. Another soldier from the battalion, Hamid Tamimi from Dijeil district in Salahuddin province, says some Iraqi troops even turned against the Americans and opened fire on U.S. personnel while chanting slogans and songs glorifying Sadr and his late father. A number of Iraqi soldiers did stay by the side of the Americans, Tamimi says, mostly from Kurdish militias. But most soldiers from Iraq's predominately Shiite southern cities fought against the Americans, he alleges.
A number of residents in Shulla, some of whom took up arms against U.S. troops, have similar accounts. Hayder al-Maliki, 26, received minor wounds in the leg and the scalp from U.S. gunfire. He alleges that he witnessed American personnel open fire on Iraqi soldiers they refused to fight alongside the U.S. and sided with pro-Sadr forces. "In the beginning the Americans tried to push the Iraqi army into the fight. But when many of them declined, the Americans started to shoot at them"-and even incited other Iraqi soldiers to "shoot their friends in the army," he says. His account could not be independently confirmed.
Iraqi officers and soldiers assigned as guards at the Taji military complex reported that members of the 2nd Battalion who'd been deployed on the mission returned later that day in two groups. Some came back in cars with American personnel, weapons hanging on their shoulders. A second group arrived on foot, without weapons, according to Ra'ad Ahmed, a recruit who guards one of the gates of the camp.
The convoy that returned with the Americans-mostly Kurdish peshmerga fighters-were then reinforced with other soldiers and sent to fight in Fallujah, says Wissam Al-Majma'i, a first lieutenant in charge of security at one of Taji's gates. Neither U.S. personnel nor Kurdish soldiers at the Taji base were willing to comment on the events of the day. One of the Kurdish troops, on condition of anonymity, simply says that "we are soldiers. We receive our orders from our military officers, whether American or Iraqi, and we have to abide by these orders."
The second group got a different reception. Eyewitnesses at the Taji base report seeing the startling sight of soldiers from the 2nd battalion clad only in their underwear. "I was surprised to see more than 30 soldiers barefoot with only their underclothes on," says Qais Al-Dulaimi, a contractor for the Baghdad Tower Contracting Company involved in U.S.-supervised reconstruction work in the camp. When Dulaimi asked an Iraqi officer about the nearly naked soldiers, the officer replied that they were being punished for disobeying military orders. "I served in the army for more than ten years without experiencing anything like this," says Dulaimi.
In all, "about 70 Iraqi troops were left barefoot and without clothing outside the camp," says Sabah Majeed, a resident of Al-Mizrffa village in the al-Taji river district. (The estimated figure of 70 was confirmed by Wissam al-Majmaa'i, the first lieutenant guarding the camp's gate.) "They were told that they were sacked for non-compliance with military orders, and had no hope of returning to military service. I helped about 18 of them, with assistance from local tribes and families," says the villager, who offered his own clothes to a soldier and drove off in his BMW wearing just his underwear.
Dulaimi said he organized civilians to provide clothes, money and food for some of the troops, as well as transport to Baghdad.
Senior officers in the New Iraqi Army say riot police and other civilian security forces should have been used on the mission rather than army troops. "The idea of using the army to carry out [such] functions against civilians inside the cities is a grave mistake," says staff colonel Dakhil Hammood, commander of the first battalion of the Salahuddin Brigade based in Tikrit. "No Iraqi would ever welcome this idea. The army must focus on foreign threats and be deployed to defend the country's porous borders." He has called for a review of the types of missions that would fall to the new Iraqi army over the long term.
Iraq's recently appointed Iraqi minister of interior, Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaiday, who is responsible for Iraq's police and civil defense forces, tells NEWSWEEK "I don't agree with the deployment of the army in this case. I'm against it." He says the transitional law does include a provision for the deployment of army troops in some cases of civil unrest, under highly prescribed conditions and under Interior Ministry authority. "But that law is not in force yet, we're still under occupation."
U.S. military officers provide a more muted account of the incident. Brig. Gen. Kimmitt puts it this way: "Some Iraqi security forces showed up, some didn't. The Iraqi army battalion was mustered [for Fallujah]; it hit some improvised explosive devices and came back and decided 'maybe this is not where we want to be.' We never said all of Iraq's security forces would be ready by this time. Are we disappointed with the performance of some units? Yes. Are we going to take action to remediate the situation? Yes."