U.S. Arrests Senior Commander of Iraqi National Guard

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

September 27, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 26 The American military said today that it had arrested a senior commander of the nascent Iraqi National Guard, raising concerns about the loyalty and reliability of the new security forces just months before general elections are scheduled to be held across the embattled country.

The Iraqi commander, Brig. Gen. Talib Abid Ghayib al-Lahibi, based in restive Diyala Province, was arrested last Thursday for "having associations with known insurgents," the military said in a written statement.

Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, General Lahibi served as lieutenant general of an infantry unit in the Iraqi Army, taught at the military college in Baghdad and commanded troops in the northern city of Mosul during the American-led invasion in March 2003, the American military said.

The military did not give further details on Mr. Lahibi's ties to the insurgency, and senior military commanders in Baghdad declined to give more information at a news conference in the late afternoon. "I don't have any specifics on why he was picked up," one commander said.

The arrest is the most significant one known of an Iraqi commander who was supposed to help the American military fill the gaping security vacuum left by the ousting of Mr. Hussein and the dismantling of the Iraqi Army.

It raises questions about whether, in the haste to stand up a legitimate Iraqi force that now includes former senior Baath Party officials, the Americans have signed on officers with questionable loyalties and abilities.

The arrest also casts a shadow on the buildup to attack and retake insurgent-controlled cities this fall, especially Falluja and Samarra, and the capital of Diyala Province, Baquba. American military commanders have said that Iraqi security forces loyal to the Americans and the interim government must join in the fight and take responsibility for controlling the areas afterward.

Even before the arrest of General Lahibi, other signs had emerged of the fractured loyalties of the Iraqi security forces. In August, the marines said they had arrested the police chief of volatile Anbar Province, which includes Falluja, and were investigating him for suspected ties to the insurgency. Like General Lahibi, the police chief, Jaadan Muhammad Alwan, was a high-ranking Baathist during the Hussein years.

Over the summer, members of the Falluja Brigade, a militia composed partly of former Baathists that was appointed by the Americans last May to secure Falluja, deserted their posts, with many joining the insurgency and turning their arms on the marines who empowered them.

Falluja remains the center of gravity of the Sunni insurgency, and American warplanes conducted another strike on Saturday night on what it called an insurgent meeting place. The military said the site was being used by members of the network led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant. It did not give casualty estimates, but cemetery and hospital officials in Falluja said eight people were killed and 20 wounded, including women and children.

This afternoon, two senior American military commanders, speaking on the condition of anonymity, questioned such assertions, which invariably arise when the Americans stage airstrikes. "We do not target innocent civilians," one commander said, but added that "we have not made any claims whatsoever that we have not had collateral damage."

Television images have shown residents of Falluja pulling dust-covered children from the rubble left by airstrikes. The hazards of entering Falluja have made it virtually impossible for foreign journalists to verify the claims made by either side. Asked about the images and reports of injured civilians, the commander said, "It's difficult for us to counter every claim in the media made by the Zarqawi network."

The commander said the strikes, coupled with raids, have resulted in the deaths or arrests of more than 100 high-level insurgents in Mr. Zarqawi's network over the last month.

This morning, suicide bombers tried driving two cars loaded with explosives into a base used by marines and members of the Iraqi National Guard in the town of Karma, near Falluja, the American military said. Both cars exploded after marines and Iraqi soldiers challenged them. No injuries were reported.

In Baghdad, insurgents continued to press a violent campaign against the interim government and the American occupation. Throughout the day, they fired mortars and rockets toward the International Zone, the vast walled compound that contains the offices of the interim government and the American Embassy.

One explosion set off wailing alarms throughout the compound, while a Katyusha rocket launched around 11 a.m. fell short and hit a side street east of the Tigris River. Shrapnel from the attack killed an Iraqi married couple and wounded four other people, witnesses said.

It is unclear exactly how General Lahibi got his senior position with the Iraqi National Guard, given his past history with the old Iraqi Army. The general was one of five candidates nominated to be the Iraqi National Guard commander of Diyala Province and was given interim command of the 204th, 205th and 206th battalions, the American military said. The command was to have become permanent once the interim Iraqi government confirmed it.

L. Paul Bremer III, the top American administrator in Iraq before the formation of the interim government, disbanded the Iraqi army in May 2003 and barred all former high-level Baathists from taking part in the new government. Those decisions were widely seen as huge errors that fueled the insurgency, and Mr. Bremer began reversing the policies last April.

General Lahibi might have joined the national guard right after that reversal, or he might have been appointed by the interim government's Defense Ministry, said an Iraqi former senior army officer who taught with General Lahibi at the military college.

"He's a good man and he's not a troublemaker," the officer said. "He's a simple man."