Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, speaking at a news conference, said the major reason for the defections of Iraqi soldiers was pay, specifically allowances for married soldiers who were struggling to support their families on $60 a month.
"We're working to review the pay scales and I think we'll have a decision in the coming weeks," Sanchez said. A total of 400 men, of an original 700, are left in the battalion in question.
Aside from pay, factors in the large-sale desertion included inadequate training, faulty equipment, ethnic tensions and other concerns, leaving the nascent 1st Battalion dramatically understaffed just days before it is scheduled to leave training camp for its first assignment, The Washington Post reported in its Saturday editions.
Iraqi, U.S. and other coalition officials told the Post the recruits who left will not be punished, nor are they even being pursued. Among those who remain, some still have not mastered such basics as how to march in formation and how to properly respond to radio calls, the newspaper said.
The Post points out that creation of the new Iraqi army is a key component of the Bush administration's plan to restore security and to return sovereignty to Iraqis. Establishing a capable military force would also yield domestic benefits for the administration by making it possible to send U.S. and other foreign soldiers home. Congress has allocated $2 billion in the next year to support the new Iraqi army.
In other developments:
And the military said a suspected Fedayeen insurgent was killed and another arrested in a shootout in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
In his news conference, Sanchez said the setback with the initial Iraqi army recruits shouldn't harm the overall goal of training 40,000 members of light infantry battalions by next October. That contradicts reports that the U.S. military had scaled back that goal.
"I believe our targets in training for the new Iraqi army are still valid," Sanchez said.
Sanchez added that a separate, 550-member force drawn from militias affiliated with Iraqi political parties was being trained to fight insurgents in Baghdad. The unit, he said, was part of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and would work under the command of the 1st Armored Division, the U.S. military unit in charge of the Iraqi capital.
The new unit, whose members were recruited as individuals rather than party militiamen, has been under discussion for months between major political groups and the U.S.-led occupation authorities. The rationale behind it is that coalition forces, who are fighting Saddam Hussein loyalists, would benefit from the experience of those who have fought the ousted dictator in the past.
Sanchez, who had previously given the number of detainees under coalition control in Iraq as about 5,000, conceded that the number is now "almost to 10,000," but said 3,800 of those are members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, a group of Iranians who oppose their religious government and have been living in Iraq.
The coalition, which considers them terrorists, has restricted them to their camp northeast of Baghdad and "separated" them from their weapons, Sanchez said.
Earlier this week, the U.S.-appointed Governing Council said it wanted all Mujahedeen Khalq fighters to leave the country by the end of the year. Sanchez said the U.S. military was talking with Iraqi leaders about arrangements for their expulsion, but details hadn't been worked out. The group has strongly protested the decision to expel its members.
The New York Times reported Saturday that the Mujahedeen had asked the Pentagon to overrule the Iraqi Governing Council order.
Sanchez didn't dispute reports that U.S. officials are learning from Israeli tactics in their fight against Palestinian militants. Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that Americans have met with them to learn some of their methods.
Asked whether U.S. troops were using Israeli tactics including targeted killings and collective punishment, Sanchez said only: "It's a different time, a different place and a different country."
"We can be a ferocious army, but we can also be a benevolent army, and we are not going to change," he added.
Sanchez said he had no idea how long it would take to catch Saddam Hussein, but said there should be no doubt that despite frequent attacks against them, the coalition forces will defeat the insurgents. He said attacks now average 20 a day, down from the low 40s a month ago.
"There is no question in my mind that the coalition and the Iraqi people are winning," he said.
Meanwhile, the president of the Iraqi Governing Council, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, and three other members of the council left Friday for Spain at the start of a European tour that will include France, Germany and Britain and conclude with a visit to the United Arab Emirates, the council said.
Al-Hakim's European tour, it added, was aimed at bolstering bilateral relations and persuading Iraq's "Paris Club" creditors to reduce the size of Iraq's debts. The tour will last 11 days.
In Paris, the French Foreign Ministry said the Iraqi delegation was to attend a meeting organized by MEDEF, France's main employer's organization.
French executives hope to press their business interests in Iraq despite a U.S. ban on reconstruction contracts for nations that opposed the war. French President Jacques Chirac was a top critic of the war.