NPR logo Incident Calls Iraqi Army Standards into Question

Incident Calls Iraqi Army Standards into Question

The Iraqi Army checkpoint in Sadr City was quiet just minutes before a shooting broke out. Corey Flintoff, NPR hide caption

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Corey Flintoff, NPR

The Iraqi Army checkpoint in Sadr City was quiet just minutes before a shooting broke out.

Corey Flintoff, NPR

U.S. military officials in Iraq have been touting the growing professionalism of the Iraqi Army, but I was present during an example of extreme unprofessionalism on Wednesday that nearly got one of our Iraqi interpreters shot.

We were in Sadr City to do an update on recovery in the area that was devastated by two months of heavy fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces and fighters from the Mahdi Army militia. The mere fact that we were there at all — without a military escort or private security guards — testifies to how much violence really has abated in Baghdad in recent months.

We drove up to one of the two entry points into Jamiila Market, which is now surrounded by a three-mile concrete blast wall erected by American forces to stop Mahdi gunmen from infiltrating the area. The checkpoint was manned by Iraqi Army soldiers.

I stayed in the car about 100 yards from the checkpoint while our Iraqi interpreter and our freelancer from Sadr City walked up to ask the Iraqi officer in charge for permission to enter the area next to the wall.

They had been gone only about five minutes when there was a furious exchange of gunfire at the checkpoint. We and everyone around us — porters, ladies in black abayas and kids — took cover. It was over in a minute or less, and — with the strange detachment that comes to ordinary people in violent places — everyone went back to their business.

Our interpreter and the stringer dashed back to the car. The interpreter shouted an expletive. "They're crazy!" he said. He said he was talking to the Iraqi officer in charge when an Iraqi patrol drove up in Humvees and demanded to get through the checkpoint. They were told to wait a minute, whereupon soldiers from the patrol started to shove and beat the man on guard. The Iraqi officer ran to pull the fighters apart, at which point someone fired a gun, and the two squads of Iraqi Army soldiers opened fire on each other.

The interpreter and stringer had crouched behind a low wall with a couple of other civilians, as bullets whizzed over their heads and ricocheted off a nearby Humvee. As soon as the air cleared, they got out of the area.

We went back to work, like everyone else, and barely mentioned the incident until we got back to the office. Later in the day, an Iraqi government source told us that two civilians were wounded in the shootout.

Granted, it was only one incident. It happened between troops who were in the midst of deadly combat just a month ago and are still on edge — watching their backs for attacks from enemy fighters. But a fratricidal skirmish would be inconceivable among American units. If it were to happen — in wartime and in a combat zone — I'm sure the soldiers involved would be waiting for their courts-martial and facing the prospect of long sentences in Leavenworth.

A spokesman for Gen. Mezher al-Jubouri, the commander of the Iraqi division that was involved, confirmed for us that the incident took place and said there would be an investigation. He said anyone responsible would be punished.

Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a top public affairs officer for the Multi-National Division in Baghdad, pointed out to me that I should consider the fact that the Iraqi Army is relatively new and the leadership in some units could be inexperienced. He said I should ask myself whether they are getting better. In Stover's words, "we believe the Iraqi Security Forces are getting better."

But military discipline doesn't get better unless misdeeds are promptly investigated and punished. Any progress the Iraqi Army may have made in winning the confidence and respect of civilians was wiped away for the people at that checkpoint, and for the hundreds of other family members and friends to whom they'll tell their story.