Iraq Wants U.S. Choice Out as Chief Of Brigade

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

BAGHDAD, Jan. 3 -- Over the strong objections of U.S. commanders in Baghdad, the Iraqi government has nominated a new leader for a brigade that is set to assume control over some of the capital's most sensitive areas. This dispute appears likely to postpone an already overdue handover by American forces for at least another month.

The 5th Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division was scheduled to assume responsibility on Dec. 27 for the heart of Baghdad, including the perimeter of the fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and many Iraqi government buildings are located. It was also to patrol the road to the city's main airport.

But a transfer ceremony that was to be attended by top generals was canceled three days beforehand, after Iraq's Defense Ministry said it would not approve the officer groomed by U.S. forces since August to command the unit, Col. Muhammed Wasif Taha, a 23-year Iraqi army veteran.

U.S. commanders are concerned that the rejection of a qualified Sunni Muslim candidate by a government that is dominated by the rival Shiite Muslim majority will fuel perceptions of Iraq's security forces as sectarian institutions, particularly in Sunni regions where sympathy for the insurgency runs deep.

American officers who work with the unit reevaluated the brigade without Taha in charge and lowered its readiness rating from Level 1, meaning it can operate without U.S. assistance, to Level 3, which means significant help is required. That rating, in force for a month, made it officially unqualified for the proposed new responsibilities.

"When you bring a new commander, we're not sure of his schooling, his experience on the ground. So it's hard for us to assess him," said Col. Ed Cardon, 45, of Watsonville, Calif., commander of the U.S. Army's 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. "We are very comfortable with Colonel Muhammed. We are not comfortable with a commander we've never worked with before. The handover was contingent upon their leadership remaining where it was."

The standoff comes at a time of broad political and military transition in Baghdad. The 3rd Infantry Division will leave the capital later this month, and the Iraqi government is preparing to give way to a new administration following the Dec. 15 elections.

The dispute simmered with little public notice for months, as official statements from U.S. and Iraqi officials depicted a seamless transition underway throughout the country to enable the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Throughout the handover, in which Iraqi forces have assumed control over dozens of former American bases, a few entire cities and the majority of land in the capital, U.S. officials have emphasized their role as trainers of the new Iraqi army. They defer questions over its deployment and command to the government. But their strong backing of Taha suggests reluctance to relinquish control over details of security, particularly in strategically important parts of the country.

Contacted several times this week, a Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Salih Sarhan, said Taha was likely to be confirmed on a trial basis. But on Tuesday he said the ministry had a different candidate in mind.

Sarhan did not name the person but described him as "an experienced, competent officer, and more senior in terms of rank" than Taha. "The ministry wanted to install a senior officer to be an executive commanding officer with the appropriate rank."

Taha, 42, a graduate of Iraq's most selective military officer training program and of a top Pakistani military academy, is among the best commanders in the Iraqi army, according to U.S. officers who have worked with him.

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