Iraq Fires Policemen, Soldiers

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 14, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 13 -- The Iraqi government said Sunday it had dismissed 1,300 soldiers and policemen for refusing to fight during an offensive last month in the southern port city of Basra.

An Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said more than 900 soldiers and policemen, including 37 senior police officers, were fired in Basra, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a security crackdown March 25.

Others were dismissed in the city of Kut, where fighting spread, Khalaf said. The offensive triggered bloody clashes across southern Iraq and in Baghdad.

Almost from the start, the Basra crackdown ran into trouble from the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mahdi Army fighters ignored an order by Maliki to turn over their weapons and began challenging Iraqi forces in militia-controlled neighborhoods.

Police commanders in Basra said the policemen who were fired had left their stations, given up their weapons and in some cases even defected to the militia when the fighting started. "They didn't do their duty," Khalaf said. "They should be ready whenever the government needs them."

Fighting continued in the city, where police have expanded sweeps for weapons and continued to impose curfews. Residents reported seeing Mahdi Army fighters walking the streets and planting bombs.

On Sunday, fighting erupted between the militia and government security forces in the city's Five-Mile district, where the Mahdi Army has built fortifications.

"The situation in our neighborhood is bad," said Raad Abbas, a Basra policeman who lives in the district. "The Iraqi army has tried to get in, but the Mahdi Army fighters are banning them."

The problems in Basra have raised questions about the preparedness of Iraq's military and police, which the United States has spent more than $22 billion to build up. American military commanders have said that strengthening the Iraqi security forces is a critical step before significant numbers of U.S. troops can be withdrawn.

Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra and Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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