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, the official overseeing the development of Iraqi security forces. The convoy then turned around and returned to the battalion’s home 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. The cornerstone of the United States’ 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.
One of the problems, Eaton said, was that the Iraqi troops were not told they would be given a relatively benign role, and assumed they were being hurled into the middle of a bloody fight, battling on the side of the Americans against Arabs. “The battalion thought it was going to be thrown into a firestorm in Fallujah,” he said.
Complicating communications, he said, was that the battalion had 10 new U.S. advisers who rotated into their jobs April 1, just four days before the incident, replacing the advisers who had trained the unit for months.
The battalion, traveling by truck and escorted by troops from the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, passed through a Shiite area in northwest Baghdad. They were fired on, and six members of the unit were wounded, one seriously, Eaton said. A crowd of Shiites gathered and “surged” at the convoy, he said. “They were stunned that they were taken under fire by their fellow population,” he said.
The battalion was then sent back to Taji, where preparations were made to fly it to the Fallujah area. But opposition to the mission stiffened, Eaton said, “so we decided not to involve them in the Fallujah operation.”
Accounts differ on whether the other Iraqi battalion based at Taji also indicated that it would decline to go to Fallujah. Eaton said it was not involved, because it was not yet deemed ready to fight.
But the other Army official said that a decision was made not to force the issue with that unit’s commanders. “I don’t think they pushed them to the brink where they said, ‘Hell, no, we won’t go,’ ” the official said.
The two senior officers also differed on what motivated the refusal.
The Iraqi rebuff was based on “pure fear,” said the Army official. “They just got cold feet.”
But Eaton, who visited the unit the day after the incident, disagreed. He noted that Iraqi troops have “fought very, very bravely” against Iran. He said that, in his view, the problem was caused by poor leadership and complicated by the fact that the unit was trained by U.S. advisers who emphasized that their job would be to defend Iraq against outside forces.
Eaton, who oversees the organization, training and equipping of the Iraqi army, the civil defense force, the police, security guards and border patrol, said the recalcitrant battalion’s Iraqi leadership would be “reorganized.”
He also said that training would be different for future battalions, and handled almost exclusively by Iraqi officers, a group of which recently finished re-training in Jordan. “They will train their own men,” he said.
Eaton, who previously was chief of infantry training for the U.S. Army, said that solutions would be found to the setback.
“Is it disappointing? Obviously,” he said. “We’re just going to work our way through it.”