By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
BAGHDAD, May 1 -- The graduation of nearly 1,000 new Iraqi army soldiers in restive Anbar province took a disorderly turn Sunday when dozens of the men declared that they would refuse to serve outside their home areas, according to U.S. and Iraqi military authorities.
The graduation ceremony at Camp Habbaniyah, a base about 45 miles west of Baghdad, had been going well. The 978 soldiers, most of them Sunni Muslims, had just finished nearly five weeks of military training and were parading before a review stand to the sounds of martial music. They took an oath of service while U.S. and Iraqi officials delivered speeches hailing the event as an important step toward the formation of a national army.
Then some soldiers started tearing their clothes off to demonstrate their rage.
The protest was triggered by an announcement that the new soldiers, all residents of Anbar province -- widely considered the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgent movement -- would be required to serve outside their home towns and outside the province as well.
Recruiting Sunnis into the army has been a key goal of U.S. policies to rebuild the Iraqi armed forces. Sunday's ceremony for the first group out of a total of 5,000 men recruited from Anbar represented major progress in that effort. But army commanders worry that if the men serve in their own home towns, they could be co-opted by insurgents.
While the fracas fell well short of outright mutiny -- there were no reported injuries, and the soldiers ate a meal in an orderly manner later that day -- a video clip of the graduation aired on the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya television networks throughout Monday gave the impression of a near-riot.
The clip showed what appeared to be dozens of angry, shouting troops ripping off their uniforms and throwing them in the air or on the ground. Others shook their fists in the direction of the camera, as Iraqi officers, waving their arms, attempted to stop the tumult. In the background, most soldiers simply milled around, looking confused about what was taking place.
U.S. military authorities, who issued a statement on Sunday night that made no mention of the incident, gave a more subdued account of what happened.
"It was actually a very small number of graduates," said Lt. Col. Michael Negard, spokesman for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, which oversees the training of the Iraqi army and police forces. "It was a momentary but very brief display of displeasure. It was never out of control. It was over as quick as it started."
The incident appears to echo an event in April 2004 when a battalion of the Iraqi army was ordered to deploy to Fallujah to help U.S. Marines fighting there. The troops refused. During the following weeks, more than 15,000 other Iraqi soldiers and police officers deserted, forcing the training effort essentially to start over with new practices designed to increase the retention of recruits.
Army graduation ceremonies have often been troubled. In late 2003, according to Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer who has advised U.S. commanders in Iraq, U.S. trainers of one Iraqi unit so distrusted their students that they carried loaded pistols at a graduation ceremony in case of mutiny.
Iraqi soldiers and local authorities said the problem that surfaced in Sunday's ceremony has not yet been solved. A mediator, Brig. Salah Khalil al-Ani, said the soldiers were angry because they believed they would be assigned to serve in their province and home towns according to an agreement worked out by tribal and religious leaders in Anbar with Defense Ministry officers.
Local leaders in Anbar have long demanded that soldiers recruited from the province also serve there. They have accused the country's predominantly Shiite army of committing abuses against the Sunnis living there, and say this is why so many of the province's residents have supported the insurgents .
"We had volunteered to serve our cities and communities, particularly our families in Ramadi and Fallujah, who have been mistreated by the present soldiers of the Iraqi army, who come in large part from Shiite areas," said one of the recruits, Ahmad Mahmoud Azzawi. "If they disperse us to Shiite and Kurdish areas, we will not go. Frankly, we would much rather go back to our land, to plant and reap our produce, than to serve others."
But Negard said the soldiers knew what they were getting into when they enlisted. "They're recruited for national service, and they know this," he said. "They're prepared from the beginning to serve where the needs of the Iraqi army go."
"Diversity is good for the force," he said. "The bottom line is, when they're under fire and they're training, there are no signs of sectarianism."
Mohammad Abdulla Alawin, a recruit from Ramadi, said he wouldn't serve anywhere else; sectarian violence was one of his biggest worries. "We are afraid of the Shiite death squads which are found inside the Iraqi army, and who might kill us if we serve outside our province."
The governor of Anbar, Mamoun Sami Rasheed, told reporters that he tried to make the recruits understand that serving in the army is a great honor, regardless of where the service might be, because it is a service for the whole country. He urged them to obey their officers and follow discipline in order to serve as an example for others.
But it isn't yet clear which way the opinion of the soldiers will swing. Another volunteer, Falah Hussein, said the soldiers' officers have met with them and asked for four days to try to work things out.
"If there is no solution, we are going home," he said.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.