Iraq sends in troops to Najaf in first major military test

Monday, August 16, 2004

BAGHDAD Iraq's interim government has decided to deploy elite security forces to dislodge the Mahdi Army from its strongholds in Najaf after a dispute on the crisis threatened to split their ranks.

Iraqi officials said elite Iraqi military and security units have been transported from bases throughout the country for Najaf.

The deployment in Najaf could mark the first major test of the Iraqi Army's Iraqi Intervention Force. Three battalions of the IIF, provided the most advanced equipment made available by the United States, have been trained and deployed to fight Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents.

It was not clear whether the army battalions have arrived in Najaf, Middle East Newsline reported.

The officials said the forces have prepared to launch an imminent offensive against Iranian-backed Shi'ite insurgents in an operation supported by U.S.-led coalition units.

The offensive was expected to begin upon the conclusion of a three-day Iraqi national conference, scheduled to end on Tuesday. On Sunday, fighting resumed between U.S. forces, accompanied by Iraqi troops, and Mahdi insurgents and three U.S. soldiers were killed.

"We shall give the peaceful way a chance," Iraqi State Minister Wael Abdul Latif said. "After that, we shall take another position."

Officials said Prime Minister Iyad Alawi ordered a halt to the U.S. offensive against the Mahdi Army on Aug. 13 to prevent a Cabinet crisis. A one-day ceasefire enabled Alawi to deploy Iraqi security forces to Najaf in his effort to end the insurgency by loyalists to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr.

"The occupation has to exit Iraq," Sadr said. "Iraq is ours. The wealth is ours. The land is ours. The Iraqis can govern Iraq. There will be no civil war, as the United States says."

Officials said Iraq's army and National Guard, backed by U.S. tanks, have been taking up positions captured by the U.S. military in central Najaf over the last 10 days. The U.S. 11th Marine Expeditionary Force was designated to provide reinforcement and support for Iraqi operations.

The Iraqi National Guard's 36th Battalion, composed largely of Kurdish fighters, has already been deployed in Najaf. The battalion was said to have fought well against Shi'ite insurgents in Faluja in April.

Over the last three weeks, the United States has shipped what officials termed a huge amount of weapons and platforms to Iraq's military and security forces. They included 2,500 vehicles, 600 radios, 55,000 weapons and 25,000 pieces of body armor for the Iraqi Army, Navy and Air Force.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry forces including police, border enforcement and facilities protection services acquired more than 6,800 vehicles, 14,000 radios, 101,000 weapons, and nearly 46,000 pieces of body armor by the end of July, officials said. Officials acknowledged that the year-long delay in equipping Iraqi troops has prevented their effectiveness and led to a drop in morale.

Iraq has been rapidly expanding the military and security forces amid the equipment shortage. In August, the army activated three military battalions in the Baghdad area.

Officials said the army plans to deploy 29,000 troops, organized into 27 battalions, by early 2005. They reported a National Guard force level of 38,250 trained soldiers, 93 percent of the overall manning goal.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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