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US to review pay structure after recruits quit Iraq force

Baghdad, Dec. 13 (Reuters): The top US general in Iraq said today he would rethink the Iraqi army pay structure after a wave of recruits quit the new force over low salaries.

His remarks came after a bomb killed a US soldier west of Baghdad, the latest in a series of deadly attacks that have increased domestic pressure on the US administration over Iraq and led it to accelerate plans to hand power over to Iraqis.

Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez acknowledged soldiers who quit over salaries of $150 monthly for senior officers may have a legitimate grievance.

“We’re in the process of reviewing the pay scales to determine what needs to be done there to ensure that they have a decent standard of living,” he told reporters in Baghdad.

Plans for a 40,000-strong new Iraqi army to help replace American forces on Iraq’s streets hit a snag this week when officials of the US-led civil administration said almost half of the 700-man first unit had quit over pay.

Those troops, along with larger police and security forces, are central to US plans to turn responsibility for security and formal sovereignty over to Iraqis by mid-2004, ahead of US presidential elections where the American occupation of Iraq looms.

Sanchez said he hoped to have a solution on the pay issue in the weeks to come, adding: “I believe our targets for building the new Iraqi army are still valid.” Washington’s Iraq troubles extended to Europe, where the defence minister of Germany — which opposed the US-led war to oust Saddam Hussein — said US troops were ill-prepared for their mission of preparing Iraq for democracy.

The remarks reflect the depth of trans-Atlantic bitterness over Iraq following a Pentagon decision to limit $18.6 billion in Iraq reconstruction contracts to countries that backed the US, freezing out the likes of Germany, France and China.

European Commission officials are studying whether the restrictions violate WTO rules.

Underlining security troubles that have plagued Iraq since April, Iraqi police and US soldiers cordoned off an area near a Baghdad hotel where western contractors stay, fearing a bomb had been planted there.

In the southern port city of Basra, hundreds of former Iraqi army officers demanding back pay blocked streets around the headquarters of the civil administration, burning tyres and throwing stones.

In Tikrit, the centre of the hunt for the ousted Iraqi leader, the US army said it had disciplined a senior officer who admitted firing a pistol near an Iraqi’s head and letting his troops beat the man during an interrogation. In a statement, the US military said that Lieutenant-Colonel Allen West had been fined $5,000 and submitted a request to retire, but would avoid a court martial. It cited “mitigating factors”.

Syria sanctions

US President George W. Bush yesterday signed legislation that provides for economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria but also gives him the ability to waive penalties. Bush signed the legislation in private and gave no indication of whether he intended to waive the sanctions. The White House had opposed the measure until Congress gave him broad waiver authority.

A US official said no decision had been made on waiving sanctions and the administration was still reviewing the issue.

Congress passed the legislation last month after the administration dropped its objections and accused Syria of ignoring US requests to crack down on Palestinian guerrilla groups.

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