- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

BAGHDAD — Faced with the desertion of nearly half the new Iraqi army, the U.S. military is thinking about raising the pay scale for Iraqi soldiers as it trains more to join the force, the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq said yesterday.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said a separate, 550-member force drawn from militias affiliated with Iraqi political parties was being trained to fight insurgents in Baghdad.

The unit, he said, was part of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and would work under the command of the 1st Armored Division, the U.S. military unit in charge of the Iraqi capital.

The new unit has been under discussion for months between major political groups and the U.S.-led occupation authorities.

The rationale behind it is that coalition forces who are fighting Saddam Hussein loyalists would benefit from the experience of those who have fought the ousted dictator in the past.

Gen. Sanchez said the major reason for the defections of Iraqi soldiers was pay, specifically allowances for married soldiers who were struggling to support their families on $60 a month.

“We’re working to review the pay scales and I think we’ll have a decision in the coming weeks,” Gen. Sanchez said. Of 700 soldiers originally in the new army, only 400 are left.

Gen. Sanchez said the setback shouldn’t hinder the overall goal of training 40,000 members of light infantry battalions by next October. The comment contradicts reports that the U.S. military had scaled back that goal.

“I believe our targets in training for the new Iraqi army are still valid,” Gen. Sanchez said. A new battalion of about 1,000 men is being trained, while a recruitment for a third one is under way.

Gen. Sanchez, who had previously stated 5,000 detainees were under coalition control in Iraq, conceded the number is now “almost up to 10,000.”

Among that total are 3,800 members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, a group of Iranians who oppose their religious government and have been living in Iraq.

The coalition, which considers them terrorists, has restricted them to their camp northeast of Baghdad and “separated” them from their weapons, Gen. Sanchez said.

Earlier this week, the U.S.-appointed Governing Council said it wanted all Mujahedeen Khalq fighters to leave the country by the end of the year. Gen. Sanchez said the U.S. military was trying to arrange their expulsion, but there were still details to work out with Iraqi leaders. The group has strongly protested the decision to expel its members.

Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said American officials met with them to learn some of their methods in their fight against Palestinian militants.

Asked whether U.S. troops in Iraq planned to adopt Israeli tactics, including targeted killings and collective punishment, Gen. Sanchez said: “It’s a different time; it’s a different place; it’s a different country; it’s a different enemy and it’s a different world.”

U.S. forces in Iraq operate within the boundaries of international law and treat civilians with dignity and respect, he said. “That’s not going to change and that’s what the American forces are. We can be a ferocious army, but at the same time we can be a very benevolent army and we will not change.”

Gen. Sanchez said he had no idea how long it would take to catch Saddam, but said there should be no doubt that despite frequent attacks against them, the coalition forces will defeat the insurgents. He said attacks now average 20 a day, about half the number of a month ago.

He also echoed recent remarks by L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, that insurgents were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to July 1, the date agreed upon by the U.S.-led coalition and the Governing Council for an Iraqi provisional government to take office with full sovereign powers.

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