Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The Army has operated more than 175,000 resupply convoys in Iraq since March 2003 without other incidents of disobedience such as the one during the weekend in which 18 soldiers refused to deliver fuel to an air base north of Baghdad.

Army officials say the actions of a relatively few soldiers in the 343rd Quartermaster Company, an Army Reserve unit, were not representative of morale in other Army units in Iraq. One focus of the investigation is whether the soldiers’ chain of command stayed aware of equipment or morale problems.

“To our knowledge, there have been no reported incidents of soldiers potentially disobeying orders in combat areas of operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan,” said Col. Joe Curtin, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “There is absolutely no indication this is a systemic problem.”

Some of the balking soldiers complained of poorly maintained and unarmored trucks as one reason they refused to make the long road trip from Nasariyah, south of Baghdad, to an air base north of the capital. Insurgents have targeted such truck convoys, using ambushes and hidden roadside bombs known as “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs.

The incident highlights the Bush administration’s failure to anticipate the concerted and deadly insurgency in Iraq. The Army did not harden support vehicles with added armor plating until the anti-coalition fighters counterattacked last fall. Since then, the Army has worked furiously to “up armor” those vehicles and has completed about half the fleet. The trucks assigned to the disobedient soldiers in the 343rd had not gotten the armor upgrade.

“We didn’t anticipate what would happen in regard to attacking convoys,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis. “An insurgency such as this is very difficult in these types of strung-out operations.”

Col. Maginnis has investigated past incidents in which soldiers failed to obey orders and has taught the history of such incidents at the Army infantry school. He said that although the Korea and Vietnam wars had numerous incidents of soldiers refusing orders, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have seen only the one incident.

Brig. Gen. James Chambers, who leads the 13th Corps Support Command, has ordered his deputy commander and the corps’ inspector general to conduct investigations into three areas: whether criminal charges should be filed, unit morale and safety lapses. Gen. Chambers ordered a unit “stand down” while soldiers check operating procedures.

Investigators initially separated the 18 soldiers and attempted to get statements. An Army official said all but five soldiers have returned to the unit. Those five, including two noncommissioned officers, remain on inactive status as they get “special scrutiny” from investigators.

“They had previous disciplinary problems,” the official said.

The inspector general will look at the chain of command to see whether the company commander had been abreast of unit dissatisfaction or complaints.

“I think for the most part the Army has handled it pretty well,” Col. Maginnis said.

Convoy duty in Iraq is hazardous. Insurgents prey on shipments of fuel, food, water and ammunition in hopes of dampening morale and cutting off supplies to coalition combat units.

Convoys took heavy hits in the early days of the insurgency in the fall of 2003. Since then, the Army has added escorts of Bradley Fighting Vehicles and attack helicopters.

In the 175,000 convoy missions, 24 soldiers have been killed, according to the Pentagon.

On an average day, there are 250 convoys on the roads of Iraq, containing a total 2,500 vehicles and more than 5,000 soldiers. Every 24 hours, they deliver 110,000 cases of bottled water, 200,000 meals and 1 million gallons of fuel.

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