WASHINGTON - A battalion of the new Iraqi army refused to go to Fallujah this week to support US Marines battling Muslim insurgents for control of the city, the commander of US-led coalition ground troops in Iraq confirmed.
Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, speaking on NBC's 'Meet The Press' program, said the incident revealed "challenges" within Iraq's security forces, trained up by the US military, as the United States looks to hand power back to the Iraqis on June 30.
"That one instance did in fact uncover some significant challenges in some of the Iraqi security force structures that have been put into place over the course of the last six months."
Sanchez said the US military had known that in organizing "reliable" security forces in Iraq as quickly as it has done, there would be some risks.
"And we also know that it's going to take us a while to stand up reliable forces that can accept responsibility for both the internal and the external security of the country," he said.
Sanchez added: "The requirement for us to hand over security to the Iraqi people will depend upon our ability to quickly stand up their security forces, the police, the army and continuing to build a civil defense corps. And that's going to take us some time."
The Washington Post, quoting US Army Major General Paul Eaton in a report Sunday, the 620-man 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Armed Forces refused to fight Monday after members of the unit were shot at in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad while en route to Fallujah.
The convoy then turned around and returned to the battalion's base in Taji, north of the Iraqi capital.
The Post quoted Eaton as saying members of the battalion insisted that they "did not sign up to fight Iraqis."
The general, who is overseeing the development of Iraqi security forces, declined to characterize the incident as a mutiny, but rather "a command failure," the report said.
Many details are pending on the structures that will be in place by the June 30 power handover date.
Sanchez said that, as far as the military is concerned, "We're committed to establishing those forces and handing over that security mission where possible as quickly as possible."
"I currently have 129,000 American soldiers or service members here in the country, and we'll manage their redeployment as the operational and tactical situation dictates."
Republican Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Armed Services Committee told ABC television's 'This Week' program, the power transfer depends specifically on Iraqi security.
"The plans for transferring power on June 30 depended on the Iraqi security forces being in place, being well-trained, and being able to respond to outbreaks of violence," Collins said.
"We all want to put an Iraqi face on this government.
"But if we transfer power before we have a stable security environment in the country, it's just not going to be successful," she said.
New details of a CNN-Time survey published Sunday revealed that a majority of 54 percent think the United States should hand power to the Iraqis on June 30, while 38 percent think it should keep power beyond that date.
A hefty 87 percent of those surveyed believe that creating a stable democratic government in Iraq will be either somewhat or very difficult, according to the poll.
Copyright © 2004 Agence France Presse.