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Shiite Troops Shy From Baghdad Service


In the last week some Iraqi soldiers refused to deploy to Baghdad to help battle the sharp rise in violence there. Thousands of Iraqis have been killed in sectarian attacks over the last four months. An American general says the Iraqi troops preferred to stay in their predominantly Shiite area of southern Iraq.

NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman has more.


TOM BOWMAN reporting:

The Iraqi soldiers in question were most Shiite, based in southeast Iraq, and part of a battalion of about 600 soldiers. Brigadier General Dana Petard helps oversee the American trainers who work with Iraqi units.

General DANA PETARD (U.S. Army): There were some soldiers, I think it was about 100, that said that they would not deploy as a part of the operation. Now a decision is going to be made whether or not that battalion will actually deploy.

BOWMAN: Thousands of Iraqi and American troops have been shifted in recent weeks to Baghdad as part of an effort to stem the surge of violence. The mission has been dubbed Operation Together Forward.

But Petard says sometimes it's difficult to move Iraqis, either together or forward. He says Iraqi soldiers are locally recruited and trained and he says it can be tough to get them to deploy to other parts of the country.


General PETARD: It becomes more difficult. Because for me those soldiers, they just thought that they would be operating in their homeland areas, their regional areas. So that is something that's got to be tackled by the Iraqi government.

FLINTOFF: Petard says it's the second time he's heard that Iraqi troops have refused to deploy. In June Iraqi soldiers in northern Iraq would not join American troops fighting in the city of Ramadi, just west of Baghdad.

But another incident was reported this week by Marine Corps Times, an independent newspaper. It quotes an Iraqi officer as saying 200 of his Shiite soldiers recently quit rather than deploy from southern Iraq to Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad.

The refusal by Iraqi soldiers to deploy reflects the difficulty of creating a truly national army, one that sees itself as defending Iraq rather than their region or ethnic group. Andrew Krepinevich is a retired Army officer and defense analyst.

Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Defense Analyst): It's an army that's just being built and there are some peculiar problems with trying to create a national army.

FLINTOFF: One problem is that Shiite troops, who make up about 70 percent of the Army's 127,000 soldiers, may be reluctant to deploy to areas where they may be forced to confront Shiite militia groups. Krepinevich says it will take time to forge an army with a national outlook. He says that comes slowly, through soldiers serving together and officers studying together at staff colleges.

Mr. KREPINEVICH: It's something that's going to have to be addressed over time and yet, of course, the problem is there is no time. That the country is threatened right now and we need to have the Iraqi security forces standing and fighting against the insurgency and against the sectarian violence.

FLINTOFF: Krepinevich says that means American troops will be needed for some time while this reconciliation process takes place.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Pentagon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.