Plans to deploy the first battalion of Iraq's new army are in doubt because a third of the soldiers trained by the U.S.-led occupation authority have quit, defense officials said Wednesday.
Touted as a key to Iraq's future, the 700-man battalion lost about 250 men over recent weeks as they were preparing to begin operations this month, Pentagon officials said.
"We are aware that a third ... has apparently resigned, and we are looking into that in order to ensure that we can recruit and retain high-quality people for a new Iraqi army," said Lt. Col. James Cassella, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
The battalion was highly celebrated when the newly retrained soldiers, marching to the beat of a U.S. Army band, completed a nine-week basic training course in early October. The graduates, including 65 officers, were to be the core "of an army that will defend its country and not oppress it," Iraq's U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said at the ceremony.
It was uncertain exactly why a third abandoned their new jobs, although some had complained that the starting salary — $60 a month for privates — was too low, officials said. The Chicago Tribune, which first reported the resignations, quoted officials in Baghdad as saying soldiers were angry after comparing their pay with the salaries of other forces. Iraqi police are paid $60 a month and the Civil Defense Corps is paid $50, officials have said.
Others may have feared threats from insurgents who have targeted Iraqis cooperating with occupation authorities, a Defense Department official said.
It also was unclear whether what remains of the battalion would be sent out for duty, officials said. And Bremer was said to be considering a review of salaries.
Progress not quite so fast
At news conferences and in speeches, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have repeatedly trumpeted the growth of Iraqi security forces — announcing breakneck speed in recruiting and training.
"Across the country, Iraqi security forces — now numbering close to 160,000 — are assuming more responsibility for the security of their country," Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
"In Kirkuk, [the U.S. commander] reports that today nearly all crime is now dealt with by the 2,200 coalition-trained Iraqi security police," Rumsfeld said. "Joint patrols have largely ended, and Iraqis have stepped forward in that particular area to patrol on their own."
He did not mention the problem with the army recruits. Officials said Wednesday that they were unaware of any other sizable resignations from the rest of the 160,000 new Iraqi security groups, which they said included 68,000 police, 13,200 civil defense forces, 65,300 guards at facilities and infrastructure and 12,500 border police.
The crumbling of Iraq's first revived army battalion holds considerable symbolism because Bush administration officials have placed great importance on handing to Iraqis some of the duties performed by the 130,000 Americans occupying the country.
But among all the security duties, it has been described as something the coalition had more time to develop because the main security problem in Iraq now is from within its borders rather than from outside.
About three-quarters of the recruits in the first battalion were also soldiers of the 400,000-man Iraq army that fell apart under U.S.-British attack seven months ago. Bremer formally dissolved the old Iraqi army in May.
A second battalion is still in the training course. The U.S. plan calls for building a 40,000-man force of light infantry battalions by next October, after which a sovereign Iraq government could decide on the eventual size and makeup of its military.
The new units were to initially take on largely passive defense duties, such as border security and manning road checkpoints.
The Bush administration plans to spend $2 billion on rebuilding the Iraqi army in the next year.
Officials have been working for weeks to speed up the training of Iraqi soldiers and police to cope with new security threats following the stepped-up attacks by insurgents, Bremer said early this month.
The recruiting was done by U.S. authorities and the training is done by civilian instructors, mostly ex-U.S. military men, from the U.S. defense contractor Vinnell Corp., officials said.