BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government reassigned the army and police chiefs in the southern city of Basra to new duties yesterday but denied the move was linked to the security forces' questionable performance during a recent offensive against militia fighters.
The police chief, Major General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, rejected suggestions that he and Army Lieutenant General Mohan al-Fireji were removed from their posts because of problems during the offensive. At least 1,300 police and soldiers have been fired for refusing to fight during the operation, which began March 25 and is ongoing.
Khalaf and Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said both men's positions had been considered temporary and were being renewed every three months. Askari portrayed the changes as routine staff redeployments.
Nevertheless, the reassignment of Basra's two highest-ranking security officials in the aftermath of a military operation that left hundreds dead and saw mass troop desertions was sure to raise questions about Iraqi officials' confidence in Fireji and Khalaf.
Skirmishes continued yesterday in Basra and in Sadr City, the Baghdad stronghold of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. An unmanned US Predator aircraft fired two Hellfire missiles on suspected militia fighters in Basra, killing four, the US military said in a statement.
Two people were reported killed in Sadr City in clashes, hospital officials and police said.
Also yesterday, the US military reported that two Marines had died in a roadside bomb blast in western Anbar Province.
Confusion surrounded the reassignment of the Basra security commanders. At a news conference, an Iraqi government security spokesman, Major General Qassim Atta Mussawi, said both men had been scheduled to take up new posts after six months in their positions. They were appointed to their jobs last fall as British forces withdrew from a base in Basra and left security for the city in Iraqi hands.
Mussawi said Fireji and Khalaf "are known for their efforts and dedication" and would be given promotions and jobs in Baghdad.
But Askari said later that Fireji at least would remain in Basra and continue to play a leading role in the offensive, albeit with a different title.
Fireji had been scheduled to leave his post when a new commander became available, Askari said. "Now, a new commander is available," he added.
Khalaf defended the work he and Fireji had done in Basra. "We feel we have fulfilled our jobs and worked to build the pillars of security," Khalaf said in an interview. "I think our mission . . . is done, and we have done it very well."