WORLD / America

US keeps faith with Iraq army
Updated: 2006-05-02 10:05

The US military said on Monday it had every confidence in the new Iraqi army it is training, after hundreds of Sunni Arab recruits joined a protest at a graduation parade that bordered on mutiny.

Three years to the day since President George W. Bush stood in front of a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" to proclaim victory in the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Washington still has 133,000 troops in Iraq, suffering daily casualties.

Bush said on Monday Iraq was now at a "turning point" as Shi'ite Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki strives, after months of political deadlock, to form a government of national unity that can quell rebellion and sectarian bloodshed.

An as yet unnamed soldier killed by a roadside bomb near Baghdad on Saturday was the 2,400th American to die in uniform in Iraq, all but 140 of them since Bush declared "major combat" over on May 1, 2003. Nearly 17,500 have been wounded.

At least 73 US troops were killed in April, their costliest month since November.

Key to Americans going home, US leaders say, is training Iraqis to take over fighting guerrillas and keeping order -- Iraqis like the 978 young men from restive Sunni Arab Anbar province who disrupted a passing out parade on Sunday, some casting off their tunics, and rejected deployment orders.

A spokesman for the US command in Baghdad overseeing a program that has trained more than 200,000 Iraqi troops, called it an isolated incident and said there was no question of the new soldiers not obeying orders.

"It is important that they are willing and able to deploy around the country," Lieutenant Colonel Michael Negard said of the recruits' complaints that they and their families could be in danger if they were posted away from their hometowns.

"They are going to salute smartly and move out," he added.

It was unclear if any of the unarmed recruits were disciplined after the protest, which ended peacefully.


US forces said they were keen to increase recruitment among the Sunni minority to broaden the sectarian and ethnic mix of the army and win it greater acceptance in places like Anbar, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said he had met delegates from some insurgent groups and hoped there could be a deal to have them lay down their arms, though hardline supporters of al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein would remain enemies of the new state.

Many Sunnis, whose community was dominant under Saddam and before, took part in the U.S.-sponsored political process for the first time in December's parliamentary election.

It was followed by four months of paralysis that frustrated US hopes of a rapid formation of a unity government that could stem violence. But the appointment of Shi'ite Islamist Maliki 10 days ago has raised expectations in Washington and Baghdad.

"This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens and it's a new chapter in our partnership," Bush said of a visit last week to Iraq by his secretary of state and defense secretary.

"Obviously there's some difficult days ahead because there's still terrorists there ... But this government is more determined than ever to succeed," he added.


Maliki said last week he needed a further week to form a government that would include Sunnis, Kurds and other groups.

With mid-term congressional elections looming in November, Bush's public approval ratings are at about the low of his presidency partly due to public discontent over the Iraq war.

One of the most prominent opposition Democrats, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee member Joseph Biden, called on Monday for Iraq to be divided, Bosnia-style, into three largely autonomous Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions, with a weaker central government controlling the highly mixed city of Baghdad.

The article in the New York Times reflected impatience in the United States with events in Iraq, where hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands forced from their homes in sectarian violence that flared two months ago.

But many Iraqi and foreign analysts argue an attempt to divide the oil-rich nation would bring its own problems and could provoke rather than hinder a civil war.

The May Day public holiday produced a lull in Iraqi political negotiations but a senior official in Maliki's Dawa party, Hassan al-Senaid, criticized Biden's remarks, saying they reflected efforts to discredit Bush at home.

"Partitioning Iraq is rejected by all Iraqis," Senaid said.

Ahead of the next meeting of the new parliament on Wednesday, only its third session since the election, an important negotiation is taking place among the parties for the two posts of deputy prime minister to Maliki, politicians said.

Three blocs have claims on the places -- Sunnis, Kurds and the cross-sectarian secular bloc of former premier Iyad Allawi, himself a Shi'ite. The two main Kurdish parties are at odds with each other, Kurdish negotiators said.

One said the Sunni Accordance Front and Allawi's group would hold talks on Tuesday to discuss the issue.