A U.S. military helicopter flies over the municipal building in the predominantly Shia Baghdad neighborhood Kadamiya. A U.S. trained Iraqi soldier stands guard.
The guard says he signed up in the new Iraqi Army to keep Baghdad safe from looters and thieves, but that if the Mehdi Army of the Shia leader Muqtada al- Sadr who has taken on the United States tries to take the municipal building, he will abandon his post.
He carries a photograph of Muqtada al-Sadr and his father Ayatolla Mohammed Sadik al-Sadr in his wallet.
The soldier explains he was imprisoned by Saddam’s regime in 1979 the same year the government executed Muqtada al-Sadr’s uncle Mohammed Bakir al-Sadr for refusing to support the ruling Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party.
While he was in prison he says he met many members of Muqtada al-Sadr’s father’s organization. He says he has great respect for Ayatolla Mohammed Sadik al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam’s regime in 1999.
He draws a distinction between the Sadr family and the terrorists he has sworn to fight. "I was in prison with this family," he told IPS, "and even before they were arrested I respected all of them."
Across the center and south of Iraq, the U.S. trained Iraqi military is refusing to fight an increasingly popular insurgency. This week U.S. officials acknowledged that half of its Iraqi Army refused to fight when the U.S. Marines began a massive assault on Fallujah April 5. The assault was launched to crush rebel supporters of al-Sadr.
"Forty percent walked off the job because they were intimidated, and 10 percent actually worked against us," Maj-Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters. Reuters reports the U.S. military has thrown 200 Iraqi servicemen in prison after they refused to participate in the attack on Fallujah.
"It’s kind of a revolution," Majid al-Samarai, columnist for an Iraqi newspaper and former TV talk-show host during Saddam Hussein’s regime told IPS. "It’s kind of a reaction to what the Americans didn’t know about. They made a very big mistake in Fallujah. They try to say they were fighting foreign Arabs and terrorists like Zarqawi but they were not just regular Iraqis in their houses who were tired of the occupation."
But while Arab sections of the new Iraqi Army defect in droves, the United States has still been able to count on support from former members of Iraq’s Kurdish guerrilla armies, the Peshmerga, who fought Saddam’s regime for years before allying themselves with the Bush Administration in last year’s war.
"We are not going to fight Arab people," says Abullah Fermande, a division commander for the Peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We are going to stop terrorism. They may have the opposite idea, but we are not fighting the Arabs in Fallujah and in Najaf (where the U.S. military is now laying siege to al-Sadr). We have so many friends there. But sometimes you see the terrorists are radical Arabs and they want to do terrible things in Kurdistan and everywhere else."
Like many of his fellow Kurds, Fermende says he has a debt to pay to the United States for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. "He was the worst kind of dictator," the commander says, "and now we have a real chance for freedom and democracy in Iraq. That’s something worth fighting for."
But U.S. officials like Administrator L. Paul Bremer are beginning to have second thoughts about their hard stand against the apparatus of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Faced with increasing defections from the Iraqi Army, Bremer announced Friday he was easing the ban on top members of Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’ath Party.
"The (interim) minister of defense informs me that he intends to have a meeting with vetted senior officers from the former regime next week to discuss how best to build the new Iraqi military establishment," Bremer said in a televised address. "More of these officers with honorable records from the former army and elsewhere will serve in the months ahead as your new army grows."
Bremer clearly has a long way to go in constituting a new Iraqi Army. Even before this month’s defections, the Iraqi Army numbered only about 6,000, with 32,450 serving in the paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. That is fairly small compared to the 350,000-member military Bremer dismissed when he arrived in Baghdad last May.