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Arrested Development on Iraqi Police Force

Times Staff Writers

The newly minted Iraqi police cadets march with great enthusiasm, if not great precision. “Mama, mama, can’t you see,” belts out an American Military Police instructor in English, “what the Army’s done to me!”

The group of 29 Iraqi men and one woman shout back in spirited but garbled English, “what tharmy done me!” each striding to a slightly different drummer.

These recruits, part of a class of 500 attending an eight-week course at the Baghdad Police Academy, represent a key element in Washington’s plan for bringing order to Iraq and turning sovereignty over to Iraqis at midyear. But poor equipment, inadequate training and morale problems all but ensure that the police will not be ready to maintain law and order on their own for the foreseeable future amid an insurgency that continues to target cities, citizens and Iraqi police themselves.

As a result, the U.S. military will be needed to provide extensive support long after June 30, Iraqi police and U.S. officials acknowledge. And that means that for Iraqis tired and angry over the occupation of their country, the streets may not look all that different once sovereignty is returned.

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“I don’t anticipate anything changing at all, really,” a U.S. official said, referring to the Iraqi security structure. “We’re not going to pull out and leave.”

Iraqis agree that the problems will be similar for all Iraqi security services, including reconstituted military and intelligence services.

“The Iraqis will not be able to take over quickly,” said Warrant Officer Fadhil Chasib, a weapons instructor at the Baghdad Police Academy and 17-year Iraqi police veteran. “We have [an] equipment shortage, huge borders. [And] most Iraqis have weapons.”

Months before launching the Iraq war last March, U.S. officials drafted plans to remake the police with the help of a 6,500-member international police force. But the plans fell apart when many nations refused to endorse the invasion or to participate in the occupation after the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

The early blueprints had called for the international force -- similar to ones used in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo -- to keep order in the immediate postwar period and to retrain the Iraqi police.

The proposed international force was to provide a buffer between the U.S. military and Iraqi civilians. The idea was to tap foreign police experts who would train Iraqi recruits and also go out in the streets to show how policing is done in democratic societies.

Instead, Iraqi police are being trained by policing experts from the U.S. military and from a handful of countries with troops in the coalition forces augmenting U.S. military efforts in Iraq. This effort was delayed by bureaucratic infighting in Washington, according to two sources, and by the decision to disband the old police force and prevent former senior Baath Party members in the Hussein regime from serving again.

Eventually, leaders hope to have a 75,000-member national Iraqi police force responsible for keeping the streets safe and a new Iraqi military of about 35,000 to handle external threats. The security plan also calls for several thousand border police and an intelligence service. The responsibilities for each branch would be roughly modeled on the U.S. system.

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At this point, however, the police face a far more difficult task than U.S. police do. They are, in essence, on the front lines of an urban guerrilla war. Targeted by insurgents as collaborators with the occupation, they are being attacked with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide bombings -- yet don’t have the same level of equipment as U.S. police or the fortified bases of American soldiers.

About 300 Iraqi police have been killed by suicide bombers, assassinations and other attacks since the war began. Last week, nine officers and trainees were gunned down on a road near Hillah in central Iraq and two others were killed in the northern city of Kirkuk.

“We’re on the front lines,” said Lt. Col. Othman Saeed, chief of Baghdad’s Khadra police station. “We can’t tell enemy from friend, our borders are wide open, and every day two or three more cops get killed.”

At the Baqubah station 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, patrol chief Salam Omar displays his “armory” for fighting insurgents: a few boxes of ammunition and a collection of 30-year-old Kalashnikov rifles leaning haphazardly against a wall.

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Then he motions out back at a brown hulk of heat-seared metal -- the remnants of a suicide bomber’s car that destroyed the station in January. Beside it is a patrol car that was bombed by insurgents, charred shreds from a slain officer’s jacket still clinging to the seat springs.

“The bad guys have grenades, RPGs, you name it,” Omar said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades. “Try answering an RPG with a pistol. We’re totally outgunned.”

The shooting deaths this month of two Americans by several men believed by U.S. authorities to be Iraqi police officers has further shaken the confidence of police.

Many on the beat say they can’t believe police would do such a thing and say infiltrators must be to blame. But no matter who carried out the attack, the officers’ reputation takes a beating. If police turn out to have pumped dozens of bullets into the Americans’ car south of Baghdad, the force has been infiltrated. If police are selling equipment, uniforms and badges out the back door, as some suspect, the officers are tainted by corruption.

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To train the Iraqi police, the U.S.-led coalition is drawing heavily on U.S. military police, who count many American police and prison guards in their ranks. The goal is to eventually replace the Americans with Iraqi instructors.

U.S. Military Police Lt. Susan Greig is in charge of training and equipping police in Diyala province, and she’s frustrated. She recently rehired 3,500 officers who had served in Hussein’s regime after what she said was careful vetting.

Her goal is to help fight insurgents and to keep order in this volatile region that stretches from the Iranian border to the outskirts of Baghdad. But she can’t get approval for a $2.1-million shopping list to buy basic equipment for each officer: a baton, pistol, handcuffs, flak jacket, flashlight, holster and winter coat.

“We’ve had a year here with all these billions of dollars you hear about being spent,” she said. “How is it that my police still aren’t equipped?”

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In spite of the limitations, some local police forces are starting to gain traction. Diyala police say they’ve broken up 10 insurgent cells and now intercept 75% of the bombs and explosives before they go off. In this province at least, U.S. forces have turned over most investigations to Iraqi police.

“I feel like a proud parent,” Greig said. “They’re doing so well.”

That said, the list of things that need fixing nationwide is long, with communications at the top.

In the Baqubah patrol district, there are only eight walkie-talkies for a large, densely packed residential district. An officer ambushed recently had no way to call for backup. The station found out hours later that he was down after neighbors let them know. By then it was too late.

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Also lacking is respect. Officer Sabah Abbas stands at a busy intersection in Baghdad trying to direct the capital’s chaotic traffic. Most drivers ignore him.

“They make obscene gestures at us, spit on us, barely miss hitting us with their cars and shoot weapons into the air near our heads,” he said with a resigned laugh. “If we had strong laws, fines, some arrest power, we’d have a chance. We don’t get any respect.”

For decades, Iraqi police have been viewed as corrupt and inferior. Despite the police state he ruled, Hussein hated the police after running afoul of them in his youth, officers say, favoring his elite Mukhabarat secret service, infamous for its brutality.

“Our own head of police who he appointed would tell us how stupid police were,” said Saeed, the Khadra police chief.

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Even small infractions, like cleaning a gun the wrong way, could earn an officer three days in jail. Further humiliation came on payday. Most officers were paid $18 a month, $6 of which had to be kicked back to those above to keep one’s job.

“I’ll tell you straight, 99% of us took bribes under Saddam Hussein,” said Kifah Asim, a second lieutenant at the Khadra station. “We had to, given our salaries. Now we’re no longer forced to extend our hands.”

The initial U.S. plan to remake the Iraqi police into a professional and accountable force was already on its 14th revision by the time retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner arrived in Kuwait a year ago to prepare for the postwar occupation, said a former official involved in the drafting. It included plans for selecting new police leaders, preparing procedures and protocols and deploying the new force.

Veterans on the international force were also to establish systems of internal controls to help prevent terrorist infiltration, civil rights abuses and corruption -- tasks soldiers are not trained to perform.

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But in the wake of the bitter diplomatic battle over the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, nations declined to contribute to the force, which would have reported to the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-military-led occupation force running Iraq.

And with the Bush administration unwilling to cede authority for Iraqi security to the United Nations, the world body was not inclined to authorize a police force, as it had done to stabilize less controversial hotspots. Then, as violence worsened last summer, U.S. and British authorities worried that it was unsafe to send civilian police into the throes of an insurgency.

“We did spend a lot of political capital in trying to get police elements there,” said the administration official, who, like most of those involved in the effort, declined to be named. By autumn, it became clear that other nations were unlikely to help, both because they feared their peacekeepers would be targets and because they did not want to be seen as adjuncts to the occupation, the official said.

Delays on providing U.S. police trainers were caused by bureaucratic infighting in Washington, two sources said. The Justice Department, which had run six previous police retraining programs throughout the 1990s, received its funding from the State Department. But “the State Department wasn’t coming up with the money because of

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The Pentagon had not run police operations in any foreign countries since the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan in 1952 and had no institutional memory or bureaucratic expertise to fall back on. “The combination of lack of money, and interagency friction, and lack of understanding of what needed to be done -- it was almost the kiss of death,” one source said.

“Right after the fighting stopped [in March], we should have been selecting senior leaders of the future Iraqi police service.... " he added. “We should have been humming along. Nothing like that was done.”

Further complicating matters was the decision by L. Paul Bremer III, Garner’s successor, to disband the old police force -- many of its members had already abandoned their posts -- and ban all former senior Baath Party members from serving in the new one. Though many think Bremer made the right decision, de-Baathification meant the entire police structure had to be re-created from scratch.

In the end, a new police training center in Jordan was created out of flat desert in 40 days, and opened for a first class of 500 recruits on Nov. 29. By June 30, the American-led facility will have graduated more than 3,000 recruits, and a companion school in Baghdad is to produce nearly 2,500, State Department officials say.

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Although the police are often targets of insurgents, hundreds of potential recruits line up each day in front of the police academy and coalition headquarters. The coalition hopes that 20,000 more police will be added by the end of the year.

A big incentive is the $160 a month for new recruits, a good salary in local terms. Once in the program, most work hard and believe they’re helping rebuild their country, instructors say.

“We’re the new Iraqi police,” said Nihad Jabbar, a cadet in his third week. “The money is good. But satisfaction is the real treasure. We’ll be representing the law.”

In addition to human rights, the curriculum at the academies includes classes in law, first aid, patrolling, search techniques and weapons. Students are openly proud of the pants, shoes and beige shirts with the academy emblem they’re issued.

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Changing an often brutal and corrupt police culture doesn’t happen overnight. Word is already filtering back from recent graduates about problems in the real world. The biggest impediment is often old-style cops, cadets say, who resent well-educated, better-equipped youngsters talking about citizens’ rights. Some precincts have even barred new graduates. About 12,000 veterans of Hussein’s police have had, on average, just three weeks of retraining.

“Ultimately the culture has to be changed from the top down,” said Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who recently spent several months in Baghdad advising the Interior Ministry. “It’s essential that the people you put back in power can be trusted and have no affiliation with the former regime.”

Imposing a U.S.-style police curriculum on one of the world’s oldest cultures inevitably hits obstacles. As Sgt. Justin Winingear shows his class how to use a portable metal detector at checkpoints, students ask if it will electrocute people.

Other issues must be finessed. American Police Training 101 requires keeping a weapon holstered while on duty. But devout Muslims pray five times a day.

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“Ultimately we told them in that case to keep it in front of you,” said Spc. Christopher Williams, a weapons instructor with the 214th Military Police Company.

Students ask if it’s all right to mace a suspect before establishing that they did anything wrong.

“Police haven’t had much sense of restraint in the past,” said instructor Michael Blanford, a prison guard in the U.S.

Perhaps toughest for many in Iraq’s male-dominated culture is the idea that women can be police officers. One woman graduated from the first class on March 4. Eleven are in the second class, which is underway.

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Ruaa Hameed, 22, said she was inspired to sign up after watching a U.S. television show about the Coast Guard that showed female officers. The academy’s course work isn’t difficult, she said.

But fellow Iraqis are definitely taken aback by the idea of a woman in the ranks.

“Maybe they could work in a hospital, but not in real police work, not in this culture,” said Baghdad police officer Basim Khalef. “If a woman ordered me to do something, I’d never obey.”

Meanwhile, the Iraqi police work -- and wait.

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“I expect there will be greater disturbances,” said 1st Lt. Mohammed Nasir as he stood in front of a Baghdad police station amid sandbags and concrete barriers meant to blunt car bombs. “The police are still not qualified to handle affairs of the country themselves.”

Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, who heads the national police force, clicks his prayer beads as he speaks of the dangers for Iraqi officers.

“I’m the most threatened person in Iraq,” he said. “But we keep on working for freedom, the same as GIs in the coalition.”


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