Before he arrived at the fourth checkpoint, Najah Ghazy had the routine down: act relaxed, apologize to the black-masked men for having his beard shaved, and say he was traveling from the Iraqi city of Babylon to visit family here in the capital.
When he returns to Babylon in eight weeks, he told himself, he will be charged with arresting such Islamic insurgents. Or, possibly, killing them.
Similar treks are made by thousands of Iraqi police recruits to the training academy in Baghdad, invariably these days with their uniforms hidden in plastic bags or gym totes.
“Too many of the other students have been discovered,” said Ghazy, 22, who is following his two older brothers into the police force. “How else can we live? There are no other jobs.”
If he lands the $200-a-month job, the future will be one of continual peril. The police force stands at the front line of a dozen Iraqi security forces trying to combat insurgents, keep the peace and secure notoriously porous borders.
The security troops are crucial to the Bush administration’s goal of sharply reducing the U.S. military presence in favor of an effective domestic force. But they are likely to remain too undermanned and under-equipped to meet that goal until well after national elections slated for January.
“Regardless of the outcome of Fallouja and the current battles in Al Anbar [province], the odds of lasting U.S. success in Iraq are now at best even, and may well be worse,” Anthony Cordesman, military analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a report issued last week. “ ‘Iraqization’ either has to be made to work, or Iraq will become a mirror image of the failure of ‘Vietnamization’ in Vietnam. Coalition military victories will become increasingly irrelevant.”
Iraqi security forces also face a concerted campaign of assassination. Nationwide, hundreds of police officers, national guardsmen and military trainees have been slaughtered. In one case, as many as 51 soldiers were killed execution-style near the Iranian border last month.
In the northern city of Mosul, dozens of bodies have been discovered in recent weeks, some beheaded. Most are believed to be the remains of police officers and others accused of collaborating with U.S. authorities.
The campaign has been remarkably effective. Three-quarters of the members of the 4,000-strong Mosul police force have abandoned their posts, said a senior military official in Iraq.
In the western town of Hit, a suicide car bomber rolled into police collecting their paychecks at a station Monday, killing a dozen officers and wounding 10.
In nearby Ramadi, police and national guardsmen have faced threats against their families that have driven them from the force or kept them quiet about their knowledge of insurgents.
“The local [forces] here, their families are rooted here, their fellow tribal members are here and they are subjects of insurgent fear and intimidation,” said Army Col. Gary Patton, the commander of U.S. forces in Ramadi.
American military officials recently deployed Iraqi national guardsmen from outside the city so that their family members could not be targeted.
Despite problems with Iraqi security forces, U.S. military commanders insist that their members have increasingly shown their commitment to defend Iraq.
The new, better-trained and better-equipped Iraqi forces include police who have defended their stations during insurgent attacks in Baghdad -- though some officers abandoned their posts in Mosul this month. And though hundreds of Iraqi army troops left the force in the week before the assault early this month on Fallouja, at least 1,000 served alongside Marines in the campaign and some died tracking guerrillas.
Iraqi forces are increasingly holding their ground, said the U.S. Army officer who is overseeing their training.
“In April, in the very tough areas relatively few did. And in August more did. And most recently in Fallouja just about all the Iraqi security forces that went into Fallouja stood up,” the officer, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, said in an interview.
A little over half the nation’s 87,133 police officers are now trained, equipped and on duty, according to U.S. military figures compiled in Cordesman’s study. The Pentagon says 135,000 officers are needed.
When the Iraqi army and other fledgling forces are included, about two-thirds of the 173,903 Iraqi security personnel are trained, equipped and on duty. The Pentagon says Iraq needs 275,708 to be at full strength.
Those numbers exaggerate the daily presence of Iraqi forces. At least a segment are on leave at any time, in part because they are paid in cash and often must travel long distances to bring the money to their families.
Lack of equipment also remains a problem. Many police officers do not have the bulletproof vests that are mandatory among their American military counterparts, and roll through central Baghdad in new but unarmored police cars, often riddled with bullet holes. Their more heavily armed colleagues in the Iraqi national guard could be seen last week locked in Baghdad traffic among cars deaf to their sirens. The guardsmen manned guns mounted in the beds of armor-free pickup trucks.
“I think we’re being unrealistic in asking them to fight an insurgency without the right equipment,” said Capt. Kevin Hanrahan of the 89th Military Police Brigade, who oversees 18 of the Baghdad police stations west of the Tigris River.
“My personal opinion is that the Iraqi people respect power, and power is an AK-47 or a Glock 9-millimeter gun,” he added. “My belief is the reason they vacated some of their other stations is that they were outgunned and outmanned.”
At the national police training center in Baghdad, instructors are trying to even the score. Persistent mortar and small-arms attacks have forced the once-outdoor classes inside the barracks. But the trainers say the Glock 9-millimeter pistols that graduates get to keep and the AK-47 rifles they use at stations have instilled a greater confidence.
The campus used to begin training 1,000 recruits each month. This month it is training 3,000. Next month it is expected to see 4,000 recruits begin the eight-week course.
“A lot of us feel the eight weeks isn’t enough, but you need to get police out on the streets,” said U.S. Army Lt. Brandt Wathan.
The police force includes a large number of Shiite Muslims, but has yet to lure a proportionate number of minority Sunni Muslims. Many Sunnis, who already feel alienated from an interim government that replaced Saddam Hussein’s mostly Sunni regime, have been intimidated by insurgent violence aimed at driving a wedge between them and Iraq’s fledgling institutions.
“How do you stop that? You secure the police,” Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said in a recent interview. “The police have to be comfortable that they can operate out of their police stations so that people can come to them with information. If the police can’t do it you put national guard with the police. If the police and the national guard can’t do it you put national guard and army with the police. If the police and national guard and army can’t do it, you put us with them.”
Meanwhile, police officers remain the No. 1 target of the insurgency.
Brig. Gen. Sabah Mohammed Fatah, who is in charge of all Iraqi police in Baghdad west of the Tigris River, lies in a hospital bed after assassins killed his bodyguards and shot him in the leg. It was the fourth attempt on his life. At the Yarmouk patrol station in the capital’s Mansour district, the local chief was gunned down in September. Several Iraqi police officers are killed each week.
But recruits are still lured to one of the few jobs on offer amid unemployment estimated to be as high as 70% in a recent Baghdad University study.
Dunya, a 30-year-old trainee wrapped in a black scarf, said she would rather go back to her job as a bank teller, but the bank wasn’t hiring.
“It’s the only choice we have,” said Dunya, a mother of two who asked that her last name not be used for fear of insurgent reprisals. “I tried to go back to my previous job, but I could not.”
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.