WASHINGTON – Efforts to create a new Iraqi army (search) to help take over the country's security have suffered a setback with the resignations of a third of the soldiers trained so far, Pentagon (search) officials say.
Touted as a key to Iraq's future, the army's first 700-man battalion lost some 250 men over recent weeks as they were preparing to begin operations this month, officials said Wednesday.
"We are aware that a third ... has apparently resigned and we are looking into that in order to ensure that we can recruit and retain high-quality people for a new Iraqi army," said Lt. Col. James Cassella, a Pentagon spokesman.
It was unclear exactly why they abandoned their new jobs, though some had complained that the starting salary -- $60 a month for privates -- was too low, officials said. Others may have feared threats from insurgents who have targeted Iraqis cooperating with occupation authorities, a Defense Department official said.
It also was unclear whether the soldiers who remained would be sent out for duty, officials said.
The battalion was highly celebrated when the newly retrained soldiers, marching to the beat of a U.S. Army band, completed a nine-week basic training course in early October. The graduates, including 65 officers, were to be the core "of an army that will defend its country and not oppress it," Iraq's American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, said at the ceremony.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) and other officials have repeatedly trumpeted the growth of Iraqi security forces -- announcing breakneck speed in recruiting and training.
"Across the country, Iraqi security forces -- now number close to 160,000 -- are assuming more responsibility for the security of their country," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon press conference Tuesday.
"In Kirkuk, (the U.S. commander) reports that today nearly all crime is now dealt with by the 2,200 coalition-trained Iraqi security police," Rumsfeld said. "Joint patrols have largely ended and Iraqis have stepped forward in that particular area to patrol on their own."
He didn't mention the problem with the army recruits. Officials said Wednesday they were unaware of any other sizable resignations from the rest of the 160,000 new Iraqi security groups, which they said includes 68,000 police, 13,200 civil defense forces, 65,300 guards at facilities and infrastructure and 12,500 border police.
The crumbling of Iraq's first revived army battalion holds considerable symbolism because Bush administration officials have placed great importance on handing to Iraqis some of the duties performed by the 130,000 Americans now occupying the country.
About three-quarters of the recruits in the first battalion also were soldiers of the 400,000-man Iraq army that fell apart under U.S.-British attack seven months ago. Bremer formally dissolved the old Iraqi army in May.
A second battalion still is in training. The American plan calls for building a 40,000-man force of light infantry battalions by next October, after which a sovereign Iraq government can decide on the eventual size and makeup of its military.
The Bush administration plans to spend some $2 billion to rebuild the Iraqi army in the next year.
The new units were to take on largely passive defense duties, such as border security and manning road checkpoints.
Bremer has said officials are working to speed up the training of Iraqi soldiers and police to cope with new security threats following a rise in attacks by insurgents.
Recruiting is done by U.S. authorities and training is led by civilian instructors -- mostly ex-U.S. military men from the U.S. defense contractor Vinnell Corp.