BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. military officials said Monday that at least 200 Iraqi troops had deserted their posts in the American-led offensive on Fallujah, illustrating the predicament faced by men who are torn between orders from commanders and outrage from their countrymen.
Prominent Iraqi clerics, including influential Sunni Muslims and top aides to rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned the Iraqi troops who were serving alongside Americans in Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold 40 miles west of Baghdad. The insurgent council that's controlled Fallujah for the past six months threatened to behead Iraqi troops who entered the city to "fight their own people."
The U.S. military and Iraqi commanders estimated that up to 200 Iraqi troops had resigned, with another 200 "on leave."
"Some people were afraid because they received threats," said Sgt. Abdul Raheem, an Iraqi soldier. "They were afraid of death."
Clerics in Fallujah blasted the Iraqi troops in a statement, calling them "the occupiers' lash on their fellow countrymen."
"We swear by God that we will stand against you in the streets, we will enter your houses and we will slaughter you just like sheep," the statement said.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made a surprise visit Monday to bolster the morale of Iraqi troops at the Camp Fallujah base. The men gathered around him and sang and danced to show their allegiance to Iraq and to him. In a rousing speech punctuated by their cheers, Allawi told the young men they were making history.
"The people of Fallujah have been taken hostage just like the people of Samarra, and you need to free them," Allawi said. "Your job is to arrest the killers, but if you kill them, let it be."
"May they go to hell!" the soldiers cried.
"To hell they will go," Allawi answered.
The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni umbrella group said to include 3,000 mosques, issued a religious edict calling for all Iraqi soldiers, national guardsmen and police officers to quit immediately or become legitimate targets for the rebels. The fatwa included a warning to the forces not to repeat the experience of Najaf, where Iraqis joined an American-led effort to crush al-Sadr's uprising in the southern Shiite holy city in August.
Hundreds of Iraqi troops are playing a support role in Fallujah, mainly providing security for areas that American forces already have cleared.
Fallujah isn't the first battle to elicit mass desertions by Iraqi troops. Hundreds were reported in the August standoff over Najaf, and many troops reportedly deserted the last time U.S. troops entered Fallujah, in April.
"Those who kill Iraqis are not Iraqis," said Sheik Mohammed Bashar al Faidhi of the scholars' association. "We told them: You made a terrible mistake in Najaf. Be careful not to repeat this experience because the occupier will leave one day, but the people will stay."
Sheik Abdulhadi al Darraji, the head of an al-Sadr office in Baghdad, said militant Shiites also condemned the incursion into Sunni territory.
"They shouldn't be tools in the hands of the occupiers," he said. "An assault against Fallujah is an assault against all Iraqis."
Despite the desertions, Iraq's nascent security forces celebrated two apparent victories Monday. In the flash-point town of Iskandariyah, a deadly zone south of Baghdad, Iraqi police disguised as civilians ambushed a rebel checkpoint and killed 25 insurgents, according to Iraqi government officials.
A Babylon province intelligence officer who wouldn't give his name for security reasons told Knight Ridder that 60 officers stormed the checkpoints and sustained no casualties. The all-Iraqi operation came after a string of large-scale attacks on Iraqi security personnel throughout the country.
"They were criminal, armed terrorists and we destroyed them all," the officer said.
The second success was part of the initial push into Fallujah late Sunday night. Men described as elite Iraqi commandos backed by U.S. troops stormed across a bridge and took over Fallujah's main hospital amid enemy fire, according to a news release from the Iraqi government. Four suspected foreign fighters, including two Moroccans, were seized in the operation just outside the city on the western bank of the Euphrates River.
The Iraqi forces blasted open doors and handcuffed patients as they searched the building for gunmen, American military spokesmen said.
Medical staff at the scene offered a different version: An overzealous, thuggish band of Iraqi troops stormed a place where there were no rebels and terrified ill and injured patients.
"They looted from us, they hurt us and they didn't respect the jobs we were trying to do," said Khaled Hindi, 38, an ambulance driver, who said Iraqi forces stole his cell phone and money. "There were fighters outside the hospital, but there were none inside."
Just before the battle began, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan addressed the Iraqi troops at Camp Fallujah.
"I swear by God we will fight until the last drop of our blood," he said. "When we came to Iraq with the coalition forces, our decision was to build Iraq through its sons. Today is your day, and jihad is for you—not for those rats."
(Allam reported from Baghdad, Lasseter from Fallujah. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Qassim Mohammed in Najaf and Shatha al Awsy in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.