By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 26 -- A dispute between the U.S. military and Iraq's Defense Ministry over who will command the Iraqi army unit assuming responsibility for some of Baghdad's most sensitive sites has led to the postponement of a formal handover scheduled for Tuesday.
Since August, Col. Muhammed Wasif Taha has served as acting commander of the 5th Brigade, 6th Division of the Iraqi army, the unit set to take charge of a section of the capital including the airport road and the perimeter of the fortified Green Zone. The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division currently controls both areas.
But the handoff ceremony has been delayed because Iraq's Defense Ministry has not approved Taha's appointment, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
"It is a bit of a showdown," said Capt. John Agnello, public affairs officer for Task Force 4-64, which is part of the 3rd Infantry Division and works closely with the Iraqi 5th Brigade. "We do not want to transfer authority if we don't know the person who will be put in command."
With the Iraqi army still viewed in parts of the country as a Shiite Muslim-dominated sectarian force, the appointment of Taha, a Sunni Arab considered an outstanding officer by U.S. forces, would be an important step, American commanders said. American officials have long sought to recruit more Sunnis for the Iraqi army in an attempt to improve its reputation among the Sunni populace. Sunnis make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency.
The transfer of sections of the country from American to Iraqi hands, underway since earlier this year, is considered a prerequisite to any further reduction of U.S. service members in the country. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the number of American combat troops would be decreased by about 7,000 early next year.
The dispute over Taha shows the extent to which the United States wields influence over key details of security here, even as it promotes the authority of the Iraqi government and delegates ever more responsibilities to Iraq's military.
Iraqi officials said Taha was still the most likely candidate for the brigade commander's job. "There was talk of choosing a more senior officer at the 5th Brigade, 6th Armored Division, for reasons of seniority," said a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Salih Sarhan. "But we are going ahead with Colonel Muhammed Wasif for the time being."
However, U.S. officers familiar with the negotiations said they were encountering strong resistance and did not know what the final result would be.
Taha, who could not be reached for comment Monday, was the brigade's executive officer until August, when its commander was relieved amid charges of corruption. He was a member of Saddam Hussein's Special Republican Guard and has more than 20 years of military experience, Defense Ministry officials said. He began working closely with U.S. forces after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003.
The U.S. administration that governed Iraq after the invasion barred former top officers from signing up for the military, but the Iraqi government has allowed many of them to return to duty. The vast majority of current Iraqi army officers served in Hussein's army, according to Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, a spokesman for the U.S. unit spearheading efforts to train Iraqi soldiers.
Since U.S. officials first put in the request for Taha's formal appointment as commander, they have been told on several occasions that the paperwork was lost or that other candidates were under consideration.
"We're not totally sure what's happening. It might be a good-old-boy network. It might be political," said one U.S. officer who has worked closely with Taha and the 5th Brigade, which has about 5,000 soldiers. "The point is he's astonishingly good. He'd be good in our Army. He's a great commander, and he's a Sunni who believes in the government."