Iraqi Battalion Refuses to 'Fight Iraqis'

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2004

BAGHDAD April 10 -- A battalion of the new Iraqi army refused to go to Fallujah earlier this week to support U.S. Marines battling for control of the city, senior U.S. Army officers here said, disclosing an incident that is casting new doubt on U.S. plans to transfer security matters to Iraqi forces.

It was the first time U.S. commanders had sought to involve the postwar Iraqi army in major combat operations, and the battalion's refusal came as large parts of Iraqi security forces have stopped carrying out their duties.

The 620-man 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi Armed Forces refused to fight Monday after members of the unit were shot at in a Shiite Muslim neighborhood in Baghdad while en route to Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim stronghold, said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who is overseeing the development of Iraqi security forces. The convoy then turned around and returned to the battalion's post on a former Republican Guard base in Taji, a town north of the capital.

Eaton said members of the battalion insisted during the ensuing discussions: "We did not sign up to fight Iraqis."

He declined to characterize the incident as a mutiny, but rather called it "a command failure."

The refusal of the battalion to perform as U.S. officials had hoped poses a significant problem for the occupation. The cornerstone of the U.S. strategy in Iraq is to draw down its military presence and turn over security functions to Iraqis.

Over the past two weeks, that approach has suffered a severe setback as Iraqi security forces have crumbled in some parts of the country. In recent days perhaps 20 percent to 25 percent of the Iraqi army, civil defense, police and other security forces have quit, changed sides, or otherwise failed to perform their duties, a senior Army officer said Saturday.

"I wouldn't say it is so widespread that it's the majority," the senior officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But it concerns us."

Eaton added: "The lines are blurring for a lot of Iraqis right now, and we're having problems with a lot of security functions right now."

A soldier with the 1st Armored Division, who has recently been engaged in combat in Baghdad, said many of the Iraqi security troops with whom he has worked are no longer reporting for duty. "I think what we are seeing is not some mass quitting and mutiny by ICDC [Iraqi Civil Defense Corps], but rather just plain fear," the soldier said. "And all it takes is one Iraqi to take the lead in leaving, and they all do out of fear."

When the 2nd Battalion graduated from training camp on Jan. 6, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hailed it as a major part of the future of Iraq. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq, attended the ceremony and said: "We are now into the accelerated period of providing Iraqi security forces, and these soldiers look very proud, very dedicated. I have high expectations that in fact they would help us bring security and stability back to the country."

The battlefield refusal of the battalion -- one of just four that exist in the Iraqi army -- began Monday when it was ordered to travel about 60 miles to support the Marines, then locked in battle with fighters in Fallujah. The mission of the Iraqi troops was to help with secondary military tasks such as manning road checkpoints and securing the perimeter, Eaton said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company