Georgian exit leaves vacuum near Iranian border

Georgian soldiers are seen after returning from Iraq, in Tbilisi, Georgia, Monday, Aug. 11, 2008. The U.S. military started flying some 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008, after Georgia recalled them.
Georgian soldiers are seen after returning from Iraq, in Tbilisi, Georgia, Monday, Aug. 11, 2008. The U.S. military started flying some 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008, after Georgia recalled them.

BAGHDAD (AP) - The departure of 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq leaves a question mark over the future of a series of checkpoints along smuggling routes near the Iranian border, forcing the U.S. to shuffle units to fill the vacuum.

Three Georgian checkpoints on highways surrounding the area's main city of Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, were empty on Monday, residents and Iraqi officials said.

But many Iraqis aren't sorry to see the Georgians go. They say the Georgians were rude, disrespectful and ineffective.

"They never respected us," 20-year-old college student Saad Hassan complained. He said Georgian soldiers would hold families at checkpoints for hours even in extremely hot or cold weather.

The former Soviet republic was the third-largest contributor of coalition forces after the U.S. and Britain. After Georgia initially sent a group of 70 servicemen to Iraq in August 2003, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili agreed to increase the contingent to 2,000 servicemen as he courted U.S. support to lessen Russian influence.

But Georgia called its forces home after an outbreak of fighting with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

The U.S. military, which began flying the Georgians home on transport planes Sunday, has acknowledged the decision would have a "near-term impact" but insisted American commanders were making adjustments to minimize the disruption to operations.

Last year, Georgia agreed to move most of its soldiers from the relatively safe Green Zone in Baghdad to a mainly Shiite desert area southeast of the capital. The purpose was to help interdict supplies allegedly smuggled to militiamen from Iran, particularly powerful roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.

At the time, U.S. commanders said the Georgians would give their strapped forces a boost by helping search vehicles and people along highways as part of stepped-up efforts to stanch the flow of illegal arms and foreign fighters to Baghdad.

The U.S. military said Monday that the Georgian brigade had searched 175,291 vehicles, 792,859 people at checkpoints and traffic control stops and had conducted 2,469 patrols in the area since Oct. 30, 2007.

Citing security concerns, the military declined to give specifics about unit changes to make up for the absence of the Georgians.

"We will make adjustments to ensure sustained operations and don't anticipate their departure will result in any significant long-term impact on the overall security situation in Iraq," said Maj. Daniel Elliott, a spokesman for U.S. forces south of Baghdad.

"They were an important and valued partner and contributed quite a bit to the improved security in Wassit province where the bulk of their forces operated with us and our Iraqi security force partners," Elliott said

But the governor of Wassit province, which includes Kut, said the Georgians provided little real security and that officials were considering removing the posts-long the source of tensions with the locals.

"I do not think that the departure of the Georgian soldiers will have an impact on the situation in the province," Latif Hamad said in a telephone interview. "There were always language and poor performance problems. Our security forces can fill any vacuum."

Local Iraqis were happy to see the Georgians leave. They complained that the Georgians, most of who could speak little English or Arabic, were rude and disrespectful.

"They did not try to give us services. Instead, they were a source of annoyance by delaying us at their checkpoints and mocking the simple locals," said Salim Ali, a 45-year-old farmer.

The U.S. military gave the Georgians a warm farewell and said it expected to have them all out of Iraq by early Tuesday, despite Russian protests over the flights.

"We want to thank them for the great support they've given the coalition and we wish them well," U.S. military spokesman Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll said Sunday at a news conference in Baghdad.

While the Georgians were primarily based in Wassit province, small contingents remained in Baghdad to help guard the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi government offices.

The Pentagon has said the Georgians also were helping provide security for important bridges near Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, as well as for three coalition forward operating bases.

The U.S. commander in northern Iraq said only about 80 of the Georgian troops had been deployed in his area, and the effect of their departure would be minimal.

"We've adapted quite frankly. These were good soldiers but we've been able to adapt the battle space to account for their loss," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling told a Pentagon press conference, speaking from a U.S. base outside Tikrit.

At least five Georgians soldiers have died in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

At its height, in the months after Saddam Hussein was toppled, the multinational force numbered about 300,000 soldiers from 38 countries-250,000 from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain and the rest ranging from 2,000 Australians to 70 Albanians.

Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.