- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

The United States has not reached its goal of building an Iraqi army that is at least 30 percent Sunni Muslims, and in some crucial battles, the Shi’ites and Kurds did much of the fighting, according to defense sources.

The ethnic mix is important because Washington does not want Sunnis to perceive the Iraqi Security Force (ISF) as de facto fighting a civil war against them — with Shi’ite and Kurdish government troops conducting raids against Sunni insurgents.

The American command, which has a goal of a combined army-national guard force of about 86,000, wants the Sunni representation to be about 30 percent, matching the population at large. The goal is to have the army filled out by Shi’ites (60 percent) and Kurds (10 percent), according to a command spokesman.

But according to defense sources, Sunni participation falls short.

Army Capt. Timothy Jeffers, a military spokesman for the U.S. training mission in Iraq, said, “To date, the current ethnic mix is unknown.

“When it comes to the national army, it has always been the intent of commanders and planners to maintain a healthy blend of ethnic representation,” he added. “Unfortunately, we have had various degrees of success with this approach.”

Terror leader Abu Musab Zarqawi has been trying to spark a civil war by sending his suicide bombers against Shi’ite targets in southern Iraq. In a taped message played on an Islamist Web site last week, Zarqawi lambasted Shi’ites for participating in November’s battle in Fallujah.

In that battle, during which U.S. Marines and soldiers purged the city of terrorists, an Iraq police commando battalion took part by taking the hospital and Iraqi army battalions engaged in urban combat.

A defense source said the commando unit was overwhelmingly made up of Kurds and Shi’ites.

“The only people who would fight were the Kurds and a few Shi’ites,” the source said. “The Kurds fought by far the best.”

Five Iraq army battalions, which had fought in the Shi’ite city of Najaf, came north to join the Marines in the bloody urban combat to free Fallujah.

Sunnis, who make up about 30 percent of Iraq’s population of 25 million, ruled the country during dictator Saddam Hussein’s 30-year rule. They ran the ruling Ba’ath Party, got all the top jobs and received perks such as the best homes, automobiles and steady electric power.

Thousands of these Sunnis are running the anti-coalition insurgency and are putting great pressure on fellow Sunnis not to joint the ISF.

“You do have some Sunni Arabs joining,” one defense source said. “The need for income is so desperate over there, they will sign up.”

But the source said the desertion rate among Sunnis “is high” as members of the insurgency threaten the families of those who join and kill the soldiers themselves.

In all, the ISF has fielded 44,000 men of the projected 86,000.

Capt. Jeffers, in a statement to The Washington Times, said intimidation is having an impact.

“First, the Iraqi National Guard, which recently was incorporated into the national army, was originally designed to be a local force and therefore has a more provincial flavor,” the statement said.

“In addition, the numbers and balances of ethnicity within an army command have been altered as the insurgent intimidation campaign takes its toll on the military ranks and as a result of local ‘emergency recruiting’ efforts. All of these realities make an analysis of the ethnic breakdown much less precise and a whole lot more difficult to report. To date, the current ethnic mix is unknown.”

The spokesman said the Iraqi Ministry of Defense (MOD) has instructed recruiting centers to question each recruit on ethnicity and religion.

“In the future, MOD hopes to have a better grasp of this important cultural information on a workable database,” he said.

But defense sources said that commanders generally know what kind of troops they are mentoring and that Sunni participation is not at an acceptable level.

Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who commands the First Infantry Division and is responsible for Iraq’s northern region, said earlier this month that he has a “very good mix” in the ISF in an area that is inhabited by all three major ethnic groups.

He did not offer any exact numbers, but said the Iraqi army commander, a Kurd, is “dedicated to an integrated Iraq.”

“I don’t see a Shi’a majority in any of these brigades that I am partnered with,” Gen. Batiste said.

Although it is still plagued by desertions, poor leadership and lack of motivation, the Iraqi Security Force has improved greatly since 10 months ago, U.S. commanders say.

The U.S. command says there are 21 standing Iraq regular army battalions, where there was none seven months ago. A command statement said training is going so well that this year, the focus will be on shifting the counterinsurgency fight from the Americans to the Iraqis.

“Fighting steadfastly alongside coalition forces, the Iraqi army performed superbly in Najaf, Samarra and Fallujah,” the command said.

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