BAGHDAD - 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 United States 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 yesterday, 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 said. He added that 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 United States 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 US 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 US 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 Shi'ite 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, US 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 US military said yesterday that the Georgian brigade had searched 175,291 vehicles and 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 Major Daniel Elliott, a spokesman for US 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 residents. Local Iraqis said that the Georgians, most of whom could speak little English or Arabic, mocked them.