BAGHDAD -- Iraqi officials said Sunday that they had fired about 1,300 soldiers and police officers who refused to fight Shiite Muslim militias during the recent government crackdown, desertions that raise questions about the likely performance of Iraqi forces as U.S. troop levels decrease.
The announcement provided the first detailed accounting of the resistance put up by some Iraqi soldiers and police during the offensive, which began March 25 in the southern city of Basra and sparked clashes in several Shiite strongholds in Baghdad.
A high-ranking police official in Basra said a roundup of alleged militia sympathizers had begun Saturday and that "a large number" of police officers were arrested at work and accused of membership in militias. "They were high-ranking and with different positions," said the Iraqi official, who was not authorized to speak and would not give his name.
He did not specify which militias they were accused of supporting.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Abdul Kareem Khalaf, said fired troops would face court-martial after having deserted for political, religious and ethnic reasons.
Khalaf described their offenses as "showing solidarity with outlaws," but did not detail the specific charges they face. Khalaf did not say how many of those fired were police and how many were soldiers.
Khalaf said most of the desertions occurred in Basra, where 921 police officers and soldiers were fired. The other deserters were from Kut, the capital of Wasit province and the scene of intense fighting in the days immediately after the launch of the Basra operation.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said that police officers were most likely to have gone AWOL because of pressure they faced in their own neighborhoods. They said this was especially true in militia-heavy areas such as Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia. Unlike soldiers, police report for duty in the districts where they live.
Three days after the offensive began, Salman Freiji, the chief of the Sadr organization in Sadr City, greeted about 40 men who said they were police and soldiers. The men, wearing dark glasses and masks, told journalists accompanying them that they would not fight fellow Shiites and wanted to give their weapons to Sadr. Video and photographs from journalists showed Freiji giving the men olive branches and Korans in return.
"It was probably more out of fear than Sadr loyalty," said a U.S. military official in Baghdad, describing the possible reasons for police putting down their guns. He said early reports had indicated that most of the security forces who deserted were young recruits recently out of training.
Whatever the reasons, the desertions are a sign of what critics have said were broader problems with the offensive ordered by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, including overly rapid deployment of shaky troops and lack of planning. Some say this points to weaknesses in Maliki's leadership and portends ongoing problems as future American troop levels continue to be a focus of debate in Washington.
"There's a certain bravado to the current [Iraqi] leadership, believing they can come into a difficult situation and just with a show of force make things happen the way they want," said the American military official, who spoke anonymously because of his critique of the U.S.-backed Iraqi leader.
"There's so much that it takes to plan a military operation. All that stuff had not been done," the official said.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has acknowledged being taken by surprise by the size and scope of Maliki's move into Basra. The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, while praising Maliki for his decisiveness, said in testimony before Congress last week that some elements of the Iraqi offensive were a disappointment, "although it is not over yet."
Both officials faced questioning about the Basra offensive and its bloody aftermath during their appearances before Washington lawmakers. Their testimony coincided with a rise in civilian casualties across Iraq for the first time in several months, because of the fighting set off by the Basra offensive.
Many lawmakers pressed Petraeus for a prediction on when troop levels could safely go below 140,000. That is the number of American forces that will be in Iraq in July, when the last of 28,500 additional troops sent here in a 2007 buildup return home. Petraeus has recommended a pause in withdrawals of at least 45 days after that, and he told lawmakers that only conditions on the ground could determine when more troops should leave.
More than 600 people, most of them civilians, have died since Maliki launched his offensive. The worst fighting has occurred in Sadr City.
For the first time in several days, the sprawling slum of about 3 million people was quiet Sunday, but lingering tensions were clear.
Inside a small house off a dirt alley, hundreds of women, many of them sobbing, wailing and beating their chests in sorrow, were mourning the slaying Friday of a high-ranking Sadr aide, Riyadh Noori, who was gunned down in the holy city of Najaf by unknown assailants.
Ahmad Chalabi, the government's point man for restoration of essential services in Baghdad, joined Noori's father, two brothers and hundreds of others in a tent reserved for male mourners.
"They were angry at their loss, they were angry at the situation, and they were angry that five years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, people are still getting killed," Chalabi said later.
After leaving the mourners, Chalabi visited a warehouse in Sadr City that is supposed to hold food rations distributed monthly to residents. There, he faced an enraged man who stood inches from Chalabi's face and accused the government of failing its people.
"We voted for Maliki! How come he's not protecting us?" Hayoun Hamid Amir yelled.
"He's one of you," Chalabi replied calmly.
"No, he's not!" Amir screamed back.
He later accused Iraqi and U.S. forces of firing indiscriminately in residential areas of Sadr City.
Tensions are likely to remain high in Mahdi Army strongholds as Iraqi parliament members consider legislation that would ban political groups aligned with militias from taking part in upcoming provincial elections. Iraq's Cabinet, which approved the legislation Sunday, is expected to present it to parliament next week.
Initial reaction underscored the difficulties lawmakers will face defining "militia" in a country where virtually every political organization relies to some degree on armed groups for protection and power.
The best known of these groups are the Mahdi Army and its rival, the Badr Organization of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The council is the country's largest Shiite political group and is allied with Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.
Sadr's loyalists say the Mahdi Army is not a militia. Members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council say the same thing about the Badr Organization.
"A militia is a military force with a certain kind of uniform and regular salaries," said Falah Shanshai, a lawmaker from the Sadr bloc.
He said the Mahdi Army was "an army of belief," devoted to fighting on behalf of the Islamic faith and Iraqis' freedom to practice it.
Shanshai said Noori's assassination was proof that the Mahdi Army did not exist as a gun-toting militia. If the Mahdi Army were a militia, Noori would have been surrounded by armed guards and would still be alive, Shanshai said.
"He went to prayers, and then he went home and was assassinated by an armed militia," Shanshai said.
He would not say which militia he blamed, but the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization are vying for control of southern Iraq.
A lawmaker from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council denied that the Badr Organization was a militia. The lawmaker, Layla Khafaji, said it had once existed as one but that aspect was dissolved in 2004 in accordance with a decree issued by the U.S.-run leadership at the time. Members retired, have been incorporated into the military or police, or found other jobs, she said.
"We don't accept men carrying guns," she said. "Any party that joins the political process should recognize that by doing so. There is no need anymore for their militias."
© 2008 Los Angeles Times