A department of the Iraqi prime minister's office is playing a leading role in the arrest and removal of senior Iraqi army and national police officers, some of whom have apparently worked too aggressively to combat violent Shiite militias, according to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.
Since March 1, at least 16 army and national police commanders have been fired, detained or pressured to resign; at least nine of them are Sunnis, according to U.S. military documents shown to The Washington Post.
Although some of the officers appear to have been fired for legitimate reasons, such as poor performance or corruption, several were considered to be among the better Iraqi officers in the field. The dismissals have angered U.S. and Iraqi leaders who say the Shiite-led government is sabotaging the military to achieve sectarian goals.
"Their only crimes or offenses were they were successful" against the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which works with Iraqi security forces. "I'm tired of seeing good Iraqi officers having to look over their shoulders when they're trying to do the right thing."
The issue strikes at a central question about the fledgling government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: whether it can put sectarian differences aside to deliver justice fairly. During earlier security crackdowns in Baghdad, Maliki was criticized for failing to target Shiite militias, in particular the Mahdi Army, which is led by hard-line Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Maliki's political supporters. Before the most recent Baghdad security plan was launched in February, Maliki repeatedly declared he would target militants regardless of their sect.
Iraqi government officials denied that security force commanders have faced political pressure and said that Maliki is committed to targeting all criminals equally.
Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki, said the first two months of the Baghdad security plan show that Maliki "is not working on any agenda but the national agenda."
"The Baghdad security plan is working on a military and professional basis without any regard for any sect or ethnic group or any political factors," he said.
But some U.S. military officials say politics remains among the greatest hindrances to the development of the Iraqi security forces -- a top priority for Americans in Iraq. Col. Ehrich Rose, chief of the Military Transition Team with the 4th Iraqi Army Division, who has spent several years working with foreign armies, said the Iraqi officer corps is riddled with divergent loyalties to different sects, tribes and political groups.
"The Iraqi army, as far as capability goes, I'd stack them up against just about any Latin American army I've dealt with," he said. "However, the politicization of their officer corps is the worst I've ever seen."
At the national level, some U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the Office of the Commander in Chief, a behind-the-scenes department that works on military issues for the prime minister.
One adviser in the office, Bassima Luay Hasun al-Jaidri, has enough influence to remove and intimidate senior commanders, and her work has "stifled" many officers who are afraid of angering her, a senior U.S. military official said. U.S. commanders are considering installing a U.S. liaison officer in the department to better understand its influence.
"Her office harasses [Iraqi commanders] if they are nationalistic and fair," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern over publicly criticizing the Iraqi government. "They need to get rid of her and her little group."
A senior Iraqi army official said he plans to seek assistance from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, in limiting the office's interference in the daily duties of the military. "We need his help to stop these noises," the official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
Dubious resignations, firings
Officials close to Maliki denied that Jaidri or her office were influencing or removing leaders in the security forces. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said no political pressure was being placed on any military or police officers, and that U.S. military officials were "exaggerating" Jaidri's role in the government. "She has no connection with the Ministry of Defense," he said.
Jaidri could not be reached for comment Sunday.
But according to documents and U.S. officials, political interference appears to have affected some of the most senior Iraqi officers.
Maj. Gen. Abdulla Mohammed Khamis al-Dafi is a Sunni who commands the 9th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad, and is responsible for eastern Baghdad, home to such predominantly Shiite districts as Sadr City. On April 23, he told U.S. military officials he was determined to resign because of repeated "interference" from the prime minister's staff, according to portions of a report on the situation that was read to The Washington Post.
Maj. Gen. Husayn Jasim Abd al-Awadi is a Shiite who was "assessed as combating militia influences" in his work with the national police, but three Iraqi generals said he would be replaced and all "agreed that Dr. Bassima played a role in the decision to fire" him, according to a separate U.S. military document marked secret.
Another national police battalion commander, Col. Nadir Abd Al-Razaq Abud al-Jaburi, has been "known to pass accurate and actionable intelligence" about the Mahdi Army, the report said, adding that U.S. military officials describe him "as professional, non-sectarian, and focused on gaining support of the populace."
Yet he was detained April 6 under an Interior Ministry warrant for allegedly supporting Sunni insurgents, the document said.
The report also outlines the case of Lt. Col. Ahmad Yousif Ibrahim Kjalil, a Sunni battalion commander in the 6th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad. He was allegedly fired by Jaidri but reinstated with another general's help. "He eventually resigned after at least five attempts on his life and one attempt on his children," the report said.
Col. Ali Fadil Amran Khatab al-Abedi, a Sunni who leads the 2nd Battalion, 5th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, was ordered arrested by the prime minister's office on April 17, the report said. Lt. Col. Emad Kahlif Abud al-Mashadani, a Sunni commander with the 1st Iraqi National Police Division, was detained April 15, the report said.
After the massive bombing in Baghdad's Sadriya market this month, Maliki ordered the arrest and investigation of a Shiite army battalion commander responsible for security in the area. A U.S. official said the commander was subsequently released and has fled.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, said his agency removes only officers who have committed crimes or whose political and sectarian leanings influence their work. An estimated 14,000 Interior Ministry employees have been purged for criminal behavior or ties to insurgents or militias, according to the spokesman, Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf Qanani.
"Any officer whose allegiance to a political party or sect we have proved will be kicked out of the ministry," he said. "Working for a Sunni or Shiite sect, this is not appropriate at the Ministry of Interior. One should work only for Iraq."
Special correspondent Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.