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Plans Unveiled for Iraqi Paramilitary Unit - 2003-12-04

Iraqi and coalition officials have unveiled a controversial plan to create an Iraqi paramilitary unit to boost the U.S. military's fight against an anti-coalition insurgency. Coalition officials here say the new paramilitary force would be formed by uniting militiamen from the country's five largest political parties represented in the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

Each party is expected to contribute as many as 170 fighters, including Shiite militiamen and the Kurdish pesh merga, who defended the country's northern autonomous Kurdish region from Saddam Hussein's army. U.S. Special Forces troops would arm, train and work with the unit, whose operations will fall under the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and be overseen by the U.S.-led military command in Baghdad.

According to military sources, the battalion's initial focus will be on apprehending Saddam's Baath Party loyalists and other suspected insurgents in and around the Iraqi capital. Once the new counter-terrorism unit is deployed as part of Iraq's newly installed Civil Defense Corps, it is likely to give the five political organizations on the Governing Council an unrivaled role in the country's internal security.

The parties have long argued that their militias should be given more security responsibilities since they are better trained than existing Iraqi forces and better suited to fight Baathists and foreign Muslim extremists than coalition troops. But the plan has come under fire from critics who say giving counter-terrorism training to militiamen with allegiances to different groups could badly backfire on the U.S.-led coalition.

Critics, including some independent members of the Governing Council, worry that Iraqi political leaders could use the fighters to pursue their own agendas, such as suppressing political dissent and targeting enemies.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor dismisses such fear. He says militia members would be recruited under rigorous conditions and as individuals, not as intact units. "Any individual that is recruited and serves must serve as an individual, under a new Iraq, unified Iraq security service," he says. "They cannot be serving to represent a political party or a particular militia."

Sources say leaders of the five parties had initially wanted to create a much larger force that would report directly to the Interior Ministry. But they say American officials rejected that proposal, saying a smaller unit under U.S. control would be sufficient for now.