U.S. Dismayed by Removal of Iraqi General
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan. I'm Deborah Amos.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
Iraq's leaders are trying again to contain sectarian killings in Baghdad. The prime minister says Sunni and Shia leaders have agreed to stop shooting and talk over their differences.
In an interview heard elsewhere on this program, the U.S. ambassador says warring groups have agreed to recognize what he calls a balance of terror.
AMOS: The latest announcement comes amid sharp criticism of Iraq's new government. Senior American military officers have privately said the government was failing to curb sectarian militias and kick-start reconstruction. Now an Iraqi army general has joined the chorus of complaints.
American commanders describe General Bashar Mahmoud Ayoub as one of the best in the Iraqi army. As NPR's Anne Garrels reports, his determination to battle extremists, be they Sunni or Shiite, has won him powerful enemies.
ANNE GARRELS: General Bashar is a burly man, who tells it like it he sees it. The first words out of his mouth underscore his despair at what has happened to his beloved country.
General BASHAR MAHMOUD AYOUB (Iraqi Army): We are running, not walking, running to the civil war.
GARRELS: Bashar, commander of the 9th Army Division, won't tolerate sectarian divides in his force.
Gen. AYOUB: I raised a sign - Iraq first - and to hell with the Sunnis and the Shias and all of the rest. I work with my soldiers. An officer's duty, the task I am giving them, not what they believe. Who doesn't accept - goodbye. I'll take his clothes and throw them out. Maybe this is the biggest change between this division and the rest of the divisions in Iraq.
GARRELS: Unlike other divisions, his goes where ordered.
Gen. AYOUB: My division now, when I give an order to move a unit or a sub-unit in anywhere in Iraq, they move directly. No one refuses.
GARRELS: While elements of other divisions refuse to move to Baghdad to take part in the current security sweep, the 9th was front and center, working closely with the U.S. military. But Bashar says other government officials aren't following up.
Gen. AYOUB: Our job, we did it. But there is another job for the other ministries - the electricity, the sewage, the cleaning, the health. No one did nothing, until today.
GARRELS: His senior American adviser, Colonel Doug Heckman, says getting Iraqi officials out of the sanctuary of the Green Zone is almost impossible.
Colonel DOUG HECKMAN (U.S. Army): The government, from the highest levels, has to force that to happen. And the people need to see that, and they will begin to have confidence if we're going to succeed.
Gen. AYOUB: According to the plan, Bashar's forces are supposed to clear one area of Baghdad and then move on to another, with police forces from the Ministry of Interior replacing them as they move along. Bashar says that's also not happening.
Gen. AYOUB: The MOI is not working their part as it was planned, and the army can't control everything. Now we are having a lack of forces now to continue our operation.
GARRELS: And even if the Interior Ministry did supply the necessary forces, he says Iraqis fear them.
Gen. AYOUB: They are not accepted because of the former (unintelligible), the killings, the murders. No one trusts them.
GARRELS: But it's not just the Ministry of the Interior which is infiltrated by Shiite death squads. He says the Ministry of Defense has its share, too.
Gen. AYOUB: Even MOD is under the influence of the militias. And we face this in every ministry in Iraq. This is the politicians' problem, not mine.
GARRELS: Now 57, General Bashar is from the old army and proud of it. He was a member of the general staff until Saddam Hussein had him arrested and imprisoned, along with many other senior officers in 1995. His sin?
Gen. AYOUB: I didn't hang his picture. I spent, in prison, one year. And he sent me out and I sat home doing nothing from '95 until the fall of the regime in 2003. Doing nothing. We were watched day and night.
GARRELS: Though a Sunni, he was not sad to see Saddam go. But he was shocked when the Americans disbanded the army. He says that was America's biggest mistake.
He joined a new Iraqi army not longer after it was formed by the Americans in 2004, but he says the Americans compounded their first error with new mistakes - key among them, putting untrained personnel in high-ranking positions.
Colonel Heckman says the 9th is unique among the new Iraqi divisions.
Col. HECKMAN: It's much older on average and more professional on average than the rest of the Iraqi army.
GARRELS: But the division is not without the same problems others face. Manning is way down because many have quit, been wounded or killed, and the tradition within the Iraqi forces for troops to go home for one week every month takes a huge toll.
Col. HECKMAN: On any given day we're probably at the best 75 manning level, 75 percent. Plus you add the liberal leave policy on top of that, and you get to -you can do the math there. You could see how you're getting down to the 50 percent absolute manning at any given time, which makes the operations difficult.
GARRELS: Sixty to seventy good officers have quit because their families have been targeted. Bashar himself has nearly been killed several times.
He pulls out a piece of paper from his briefcase. It was found during a raid.
Gen. BASHAR: This is the map that shows where I live exactly. And this is the part of the plan of the militias to attack my house. They are planning to assassinate me.
GARRELS: Three years after the new army was conceived, Bashar says the government finally realizes it needs more professionals.
Gen. BASHAR: The prime minister announced a campaign. They want 30,000 volunteers from the soldiers and the officers from the old army to come back, asking them to join back. All of them, they are professionals.
GARRELS: But he says the government will not always let them hire the best and the brightest now willing to join, because the militias have a say. Col. Heckman says day to day it can be very frustrating. Sometimes he thinks he's going backwards.
Col. HECKMAN: But every time I do that, I kind of drag myself into the stratosphere and look down. And there's no question that we're making progress, especially here in the 9th division - strong leadership.
GARRELS: But that strong leadership has rubbed some Iraqi officials the wrong way. Despite repeated appeals from American commanders he continue in his post, Gen. Bashar is being moved on the orders of Prime Minister Maliki. American officials say Gen. Bashar was simply too much of a threat to the militias backed by various parties.
INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad, whose reporting raises a question. Anne, we've been hearing today about the prime minister's new plan to contain militia violence, but you just told us that this same prime minister is getting rid of a general who wants to contain violence. How do those two things match up?
GARRELS: Well, Maliki's been a bit of a conundrum for a long time. He's been publicly talking about reconciliation for months, but hasn't done anything concrete so far, certainly nothing to rein in the militias.
When the U.S. commanders have gone after militia targets they say are known to be linked to death squads, Prime Minister Maliki has not supported them in public. Ambassador Khalilzad told you earlier today that the parties have come to realize enough is enough now.
One question, though, is do the parties have enough control over the militias and insurgent groups? I mean, among many questions. And a senior U.S. intelligence official last week estimated that, for instance, Moqtada al-Sadr probably has lost control of fully one-third of his militiamen.
INSKEEP: Now is Maliki, as he tries to meet with some of these leaders, is he trying to talk his way out of the violence instead of fight it out using generals like the one you interviewed?
GARRELS: Well, probably, yes. But I don't think anyone has any illusions - and Ambassador Khalilzad alluded to this - that there's going to be peace any time soon. And lawmakers today made it clear a lot more details are needed. Some lawmakers said the plan was a sham, some said it only came under U.S. pressure on Maliki, and these are signatories to the plan. And while the major parties across the sectarian divide signed on, there were continued signs of division today with a lot of finger pointing.
INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad.