After the Crackdown

Iraq's Top Commanders In Basra Are Reassigned

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 17, 2008

BAGHDAD, April 16 -- The Iraqi government said Wednesday that it was reassigning the top military and police commanders in the southern city of Basra, three weeks after a crackdown on Shiite militias there that was widely criticized as a poorly planned offensive that failed to disarm the fighters.

Iraqi officials said the military commander, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Furaiji, and the police chief, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, were not forced out of their jobs. Both commanders were being promoted from their Basra posts, which were always meant to be temporary, the officials said.

But some Basra politicians said the moves were probably punishment for the botched execution of a campaign ordered last month by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against militias, particularly the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The raids, which left hundreds dead, did not result in a decisive victory for either side.

"It seems that the government wants to blame its failure on somebody," said Ali al-Suaidi, the spokesman for Sadr's office in Basra. "It is not good for the government to change its commanders in such conditions and circumstances, but this indicates the bad planning of the government."

The two commanders said they were dispatched from their posts in the Defense Ministry last year to spend three months working to improve the situation in Basra, an oil-rich city that has been dominated by gangs and militias, especially since British troops pulled out of the city center last year. The commanders' contracts were then extended for another three months, a period that ended Tuesday.

"We did not let down the government in carrying out our duty in the last crackdown, and we have carried out a lot of difficult tasks and liberated a lot of areas in Basra from the control of the Mahdi Army," Khalaf said in an interview. "The Iraqi government is totally satisfied with our performance in Basra, and we will take higher positions in Baghdad."

Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, said: "The two have done a great job and their efforts were highly appreciated by the commander in chief." He said Maj. Gen. Mohammad Jawad will be Basra's new military commander and Maj. Gen. Adel Dahham will become police chief. Furaiji said he would return to his job as a senior adviser to the defense minister; Khalaf would not say what his new post would be.

The announcement came on the same day that airstrikes by the American-led coalition killed four fighters attacking an Iraqi army patrol with rocket-propelled grenades at 1 a.m., the U.S. military said.

Also Wednesday, an Associated Press photographer was released after more than two years in U.S. military custody. Bilal Hussein, 36, part of an AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 2005, was greeted by tearful relatives on his release, the news service reported.

The U.S. military accused Hussein of being linked to insurgents, but an Iraqi judicial panel this month dismissed all the charges. He was set free after the American military said it no longer considers him a threat.

Hussein has denied any improper links to insurgents. "I have spent two years in prison even though I was innocent," he said after being freed, according to the AP.

Special correspondent Aahad Ali in Basra contributed to this report.

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