By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
BAGHDAD, Jan. 31 -- The ceremony was more than a month behind schedule, and the area transferred to Iraqi control significantly smaller than originally planned: 20 buildings inside Baghdad's Green Zone instead of the fortified complex's entire perimeter.
But for Iraqi Col. Muhammed Wasif Taha, commander of the Iraqi army's 5th Brigade, 6th Division, which assumed responsibility for Forward Operating Base Honor from U.S. forces Tuesday, it was cause for celebration.
"This is a great day and I am very proud to be here," said Taha, a Sunni Muslim whose appointment U.S. officials had said would counter the impression of Iraq's army as a Shiite sectarian force. Taha, who is highly regarded by American officers in Baghdad, said Tuesday that 85 to 90 percent of the troops in the 5th Brigade are Shiites.
In December, Iraq's Defense Ministry balked at confirming Taha and put forward its own nominee, a more senior officer from the predominantly Shiite city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad. As a result, the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which policed the capital for a year before rotating out of Iraq this month, lowered the Iraqi unit's readiness rating and indefinitely postponed the Green Zone transfer, which had been slated for Dec. 27.
"The handover was contingent upon their leadership remaining where it was," Col. Ed Cardon, commander of the 3rd Infantry's 4th Brigade, said at the time.
In the end, both sides blinked, though neither capitulated.
By giving the Iraqis the base, the Americans took a step toward handing over much of central Baghdad, and commanders said Tuesday that more territory would likely be transferred in the next few weeks, as the Iraqi unit's final evaluation is completed. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry authorized Taha's appointment, while reserving the right to replace him at a later date, according to a ministry spokesman who spoke on the condition that he not be named.
The result was a somewhat subdued handover, despite the brass band and wedding-style chocolate cake.
"The turnover of FOB Honor demonstrates the increased capability of Col. Muhammed's brigade to assume greater responsibility and security of Baghdad," said Col. Michael F. Beech, commander of the 4th Infantry Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team, which is based in the capital. "The 5th Brigade has earned a reputation of being a tough, well-trained and well-led unit."
It was a more somber day in the southern province of Basra, where British troops suffered their 100th death since the invasion in March 2003. A British government statement said that one soldier had died and that three others had been wounded in "an explosion."
The British military, whose contingent of roughly 8,000 troops is the second-largest foreign force in the country, has had a deteriorating relationship with police and governing officials in southern Iraq, considered among the most stable parts of the country.
Antiwar activists in Britain used the occasion to renew calls for the withdrawal of the British force.
Meanwhile, the kidnappers of two German men issued a videotaped message in which they threatened to kill their captives unless Germany halts cooperation with the Iraqi government, news services reported.
On a videotape aired on al-Jazeera television, kidnappers threatened to kill Thomas Nitzschke and Rene Braeunlich unless Germany closes its embassy in Iraq, withdraws all the German companies from the country and stops cooperating with the Iraqi government within three days. The two men were abducted last week in the city of Baiji.
In Baghdad, police found 13 bodies blindfolded and handcuffed in Rustamiyah, a central neighborhood. The victims had been shot in the head and chest. Police also found three bodies with bullet wounds in the Ghazaliya neighborhood.
In the Dora district of southern Baghdad, a police commando unit detained 85 suspected insurgents, including several foreigners, in a series of daytime raids, according to Brig. Gen. Arkan Dulaimi, commander of Eagle Brigade.