BAGHDAD, Iraq—Washington's handpicked Iraqi interior minister abruptly resigned Thursday, leaving the U.S.-led administration without a Baghdad bureaucrat to oversee the country's new and embattled police force.
Coming on the edgy eve of the first anniversary of Baghdad's fall, it was the first resignation of a senior Iraqi occupation official, and added to a sense of disarray as the coalition battles Sunni Muslim guerrillas and Shiite Muslim militiamen.
"We have trained police officers and we have been training investigators and I have been really impressed. But we cannot maintain security all over the country," Interior Minister Nuri Badran, 51, told a roomful of stunned, mostly Iraqi reporters as he walked off the job, before telling his boss, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer: "I hope that God will protect this country and all the people of Iraq."
Since Saturday, Shiite militiamen have overrun dozens of Iraqi police posts from Baghdad's Sadr City slum to the southern city of Basra. Other Iraqi police officers disappeared rather than intervene in the murders and mutilations of four American security contractors March 31 in the Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah.
The episodes have cast a harsh spotlight on the coalition's estimated 72,000-strong Iraqi police force, which is being reconstituted with American money and training. But American officials have mostly been sympathetic to the plight of the police, who've suffered more than 350 deaths as they work with the U.S.-led coalition to restore law and order.
Bremer and Governing Council President Massoud Barzani thanked Badran for his service in a joint statement and said the post would be filled soon. "We regret Minister of Interior Nuri Badran's decision to resign. He has served with skill and courage in a difficult position at a difficult time."
A Shiite, Badran had served since December and was considered a key insider in the emerging Iraqi government. He's a former diplomat who defected from Iraq in the 1990s and is a brother-in-law of new Defense Minister Ayad Alawi.
Badran's surprise announcement came moments after U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez sought to characterize the coalition's counteroffensive as well in hand despite five days of advances by the Shiite militia Mahdi Army and three days of Marine clashes around Fallujah.
As Sanchez spoke inside the concrete-barrier- and concertina-wire-protected Green Zone, where coalition employees live and work, detonation experts were disposing of a bomb that was discovered in a parking lot. Soon after Badran took the same podium, a mortar round struck nearby grounds.
U.S. officials had advertised the event as a joint news briefing, in part to urge calm on the anniversary of Baghdad's fall and ahead of a solemn weekend Shiite pilgrimage to the southern holy city of Karbala.
Karbala remains in coalition hands, but Mahdi Army rebels control key shrines and police stations in the sister shrine city of Najaf, 44 miles away.
Badran chose to speak after Sanchez, the overall commander of security operations in Iraq. Badran said bitterly that he was quitting because Bremer had criticized his police privately and because he, Badran, believed Bremer wanted a Sunni rather than a Shiite in the job.
Bremer has been trying to build a Cabinet with a balance among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in this country where the long-suppressed Shiites are the majority. In that light, his choice of Badran's brother-in-law, Alawi, as defense minister made sense because it put a Sunni in charge of the military and a Shiite in control of the police.
The immediate effect of Badran's resignation wasn't clear. A senior coalition military official said that with Iraq's police force now under the coalition umbrella, the resignation should have no short-term impact. In the long term, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity, "Iraq needs an Iraqi interior minister to do its job."
But, more broadly, senior coalition officials have boasted for weeks that they've lined up a Cabinet of 25 professional ministers, the vast majority of them former exiles, capable of running Iraqi government departments ahead of President Bush's June 30 deadline to return sovereignty to the Iraqi people.
The top-level resignation means Bremer must return to the task of vetting Cabinet candidates as his military counterparts engage in the worst spate of combat since the war ended last year.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.