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Can they fight?

The recent battle between Iraqi soldiers and militiamen provides a sort of progress report on the nation's army.

April 03, 2008|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi colonel's phone rang shortly before the bloodshed began. Shiite militiamen were planning to overrun forces under his command, the callers warned, and his children would be killed if his soldiers fought back.

Within hours on the afternoon of March 25, militiamen with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns crossed footpaths spanning a sewage-choked canal that separates a militia stronghold in northwest Baghdad from a neighboring district where Col. Falih Hussein was in charge. Two Iraqi military positions along the canal quickly fell, and the soldiers retreated to the next defensible position.

The fight was on and would not end for five days.

In that time, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kevin Petit saw a rocket-propelled grenade bounce off a Humvee in front of him, reminding him of the dust- and blood-filled battles he had fought in the alleyways of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1994. Hussein, for his part, sent his family to another neighborhood for safety. From the southern city of Basra, where the fighting began, and north to Baghdad, more than 600 Iraqis were killed.

But as quickly as the fighting started, it ended Monday, a day after Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr called a cease-fire for his Mahdi Army militia.

A burning question now is how well the Iraqi security forces performed. It is sure to figure in congressional hearings starting Tuesday when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus gives his latest assessment of the Iraq war.

In this volatile slice of northwest Baghdad, at least, U.S. and Iraqi forces say the Iraqis fought admirably, but they acknowledge problems in command and control, in logistics and among national police who were not trained to handle urban warfare.

As well, Iraqis in front-line positions ran out of ammunition and had to hurry to the next battle position to get more. Iraqi police officers sometimes proved unreliable at backing up army soldiers.

"There were pockets of excellence, but there was no synchronized excellence," Petit said Wednesday as he re-created for a small group of reporters the battles in his area of command, which includes the filthy green waterway that separates the militia stronghold of Shula and the neighboring Ghazaliya area that Hussein was responsible for.

Like most U.S. and Iraqi military officials, Petit rejects suggestions that the Iraqis proved incapable of holding their own in the heat of battle.

The lieutenant colonel's sentiment was echoed Wednesday by the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner.

"Overall, the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission," Bergner said. "Some were not up to the task, and the government of Iraq is taking the necessary action in those cases."

Problems seemed more pronounced with the national police.

"Police work where they live and are inherently influenced by the politics of their community," said a Western security official, who estimated police desertions at more than 50% in Mahdi Army strongholds such as Baghdad's Sadr City and parts of Basra.

In Basra, Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Kareem Khalaf said 407 Iraqi police officers had been fired for allegedly working with militias during the fighting.

The Iraqi government has not yet released desertion figures, but Hussein said five soldiers went AWOL in his area. As his situation showed, one challenge facing Iraqi forces if Shiite-on-Shiite fighting erupts again could be getting Iraqi soldiers to shoot at their brethren.

Like many soldiers in this area, Hussein has friends and relatives in Shula who faced repercussions if the military confronted the militias there.

"People were calling me on my cellphone, threatening to kill my kids," said Hussein, a husky man with a gray-flecked mustache and a red beret perched on his head. He commands the 4th Battalion of the 22nd Brigade in the Iraqi army's 6th Division.

Hussein said he sent his family to another neighborhood as warnings and messages began pouring in to his forces from people they knew in Shula. They said, "Be cautious, be careful, because JAM and special groups are going to do something," said Hussein, using terms for the Mahdi Army militia and splinter groups.

Petit said he sympathized with people in Hussein's predicament.

"I think the hardest part of this is the family of the guy in the Iraqi army unit lives there, and his friends live there," he said, referring to the areas from which their enemies flowed.

As the warnings came in to Hussein, Iraqi forces were moved into position in vulnerable areas: to the roof of a vacant mosque at the entrance to Shula, where the brick dome and sandbags provided cover; to the wide avenue leading through Hurriya, a nearby militia stronghold; and to bunkers in Ghazaliya.

Extra American forces were deployed to back up the Iraqi positions in the three neighborhoods, said U.S. Army Col. Bill Hickman, who commands the area encompassing the districts on the west side of the Tigris River.

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