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.
In an interview, Taha said the Iraqi brigade to which he was assigned during the U.S. invasion dissolved without fighting. He later went to work for a satellite telephone company in Baghdad, then joined the new U.S.-backed Iraqi army in the summer of 2004.
As a Sunni Arab from Baghdad, he would help diversify the army's top ranks, which are currently dominated by Shiites and Kurds, U.S. officers said. Infusing the military with more Sunni Arabs -- the minority group that led the country under Saddam Hussein and makes up most of Iraq's insurgency -- could improve stability in restive Sunni regions where security forces are mistrusted.
"The military must be a balance between all the Iraqi sides," Taha said. "There is no need for one side to control everything. All Iraqis should be represented."
Another Defense Ministry spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Taha had been a member of Hussein's elite Special Republican Guard and a high-level member of Hussein's Baath Party. Taha denies both claims.
Iraq's army was disbanded soon after the U.S. invasion, and former top officers were initially precluded from rejoining. But Iraq's Defense Ministry has embraced the return of many former commanders, who now make up the bulk of the new officer corps.
Cardon said the Defense Ministry's unnamed candidate is a brigadier general from Kut, a predominantly Shiite city southeast of Baghdad.
"Maybe the guy the government wants is the greatest officer in Iraq, or maybe he is the worst, we don't know," said Capt. Ed Ballanco, 31, of Montvale, N.J., commander of the military training team that is partnered with the Iraqi 5th Brigade. "I do know that Colonel Muhammed is by far and away the most professional officer I have worked with in this country."
Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, a spokesman for the multinational force responsible for training the Iraqi army, said he was surprised that the brigade's official rating had fallen so far based on the prospect of a different commander.
"My concern is we're investing ourselves in a person through personal loyalty, which is good, but that we are not allowing the system to work itself out," he said. "We have asked the Iraqis to take control of their ministry and that is what they are doing."
Cardon said American officials are increasingly concerned that the cohesion and quality of the Iraqi army will suffer because politics or sectarian considerations, rather than merit, determine appointments. Iraq's defense minister, Sadoun Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab and former academic, is widely expected to leave his post when a new government is formed based on last month's elections.
"You watch to see how many brigade commanders change jobs when you have a new defense minister," Cardon said. "It is very dangerous to politicize the leadership like this. The question then becomes, are you loyal to the country or to a political party?"
During the standoff over his appointment, Taha has received threatening phone calls. Cardon said he believes some of them are coming from officers within the Defense Ministry because the callers reached him on his cell phone. "Sometimes those death threats aren't just from insurgents, so I worry about his future," Cardon said.
Taha said he did not know why his appointment has been opposed. "I am the best among the officers and I don't know why they are against me," he said. "I am waiting and whatever God decides is all right."