U.S. to Restrict Iraqi Police

Times Staff Writer

After a series of prison abuse scandals that have inflamed sectarian tensions, U.S. officials announced plans Thursday to rein in Iraqi special police forces, increasing the number of American troops assigned to work with them and requiring consultations before the Iraqis mount raids in Baghdad.

The decision to impose more day-to-day oversight suggests a recognition within the U.S. military that the heavy-handed tactics of some Iraqi units, which are to increasingly take on the role of fighting insurgents, have aggravated the sectarian strife that helps fuel the insurgency.

More than 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion and 1 1/2 years after the formal end of the occupation, it also illustrates that Americans still have the final word on security matters.

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs, who dominated Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein, have complained of being targeted by the security forces now controlled by Shiite Muslims. The bodies of hundreds of Sunni men have been fished out of the Tigris River or found in abandoned lots and garbage dumps. Many had been tied, blindfolded and shot execution-style. Relatives often say their family members were taken away by Iraqi security forces or people dressed as such.

Sunni anger at the change of power in Iraq has largely fueled the insurgency.


The U.S. announcement comes after several abuse scandals involving Iraqi Interior Ministry forces. Last month, U.S. troops raided a secret prison where ministry forces reportedly were holding dozens of emaciated and tortured inmates, many of them Sunnis.

Shiites, meanwhile, say they have been the victims of retaliatory killings.

On Thursday, a truck driver visiting relatives in a suburb south of Baghdad found that the entire 14-member family had been shot and killed.

In other violence, a suicide bomber disguised in a police uniform killed four police officers at a checkpoint near the Interior Ministry, officials said.

Seven of nine Iraqi special police brigades in Baghdad now have 40 to 45 Americans attached to each. Under the new plan, hundreds of additional U.S. troops will team up with each of the nine brigades.

The plan, which is expected to be formally approved in Washington in a few weeks, will be implemented in the capital first but may serve as a model for the rest of the country, said a senior U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

American officials lately have begun expressing concern that pro-Iranian militias have infiltrated the security forces. In a country with deep tribal and sectarian ties, it’s difficult to establish where commanders’ loyalties lie, the official said.

Another U.S. military official, Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who is in charge of training Iraqi troops, told reporters this month that the penetration of the police by militias was “a serious problem.... We don’t tolerate the presence of militias when we encounter it.”

Dempsey said the Iraqi government was ambivalent about the existence of militias, which complicates the problem. Though the Iraqi Constitution forbids militias to act as a national army, it permits regions to have “home guards” or “regional guards.”

“Frankly, the Iraqi government has got to figure out what is meant by that,” Dempsey said.

By increasing the number of U.S. troops working with Iraqi police units, the Americans will be better able to mentor and train the police, much as they do now with Iraq’s army, the senior military official said.

“What we’re trying to look for is that moderation,” the official said, “that you can’t just go and attack that neighborhood because it’s primarily a different sect or a different race or a group of foreigners ... and just arrest them because they’re different and put them in secret facilities and hold them for undetermined periods of time.”

Since a raid in mid-November in which mistreated prisoners were reportedly found at a Baghdad prison, U.S. officials say American and Iraqi investigators have discovered overcrowding and indications of mistreatment at two other Baghdad facilities and at one in the northwestern city of Tall Afar.

This week, the U.S. military announced it would delay the hand-over of American-run prisons to Iraqis.

U.S. commanders also have begun holding intelligence-sharing meetings twice a week with Iraqi security officials, the senior military official said. The meetings allow Americans to monitor arrests made by police during raids and where the detainees are taken. “They have to coordinate with us and request permission to come into our battle space,” the official said.

“We learned our lessons on the military side, and now we want to apply them to the police side,” said Army Lt. Col. Fred Wellman, spokesman for the multinational command overseeing training of the Iraqi army. He said the plan was not developed as a response to accounts of prisoner torture or extrajudicial killings, but as part of the larger strategy for handing over control to Iraqi security forces.

“This is not about oversight or watching our partners,” he said. “We want to be positive role models, to provide experience and assets, so Iraq can transition to civil security, which is how it [is] in a normal country.”

The U.S. moves will upset some Interior Ministry officials, the senior official acknowledged. It amounts to a reimposition of American authority over security forces that have operated independently for months.

Unlike the Iraqi army, special police forces grew unsupervised after the April 2003 ouster of Hussein’s government and now number about 15,000 officers. Some can be seen firing their weapons in the air as they roar through Baghdad in trucks mounted with machine guns.

“There were some elements allowed to grow that we may not have fully understood,” the official said, singling out the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a political party in the governing coalition that has ties to Iran.

The Bush administration has made adequate training of Iraqi security forces a precondition for American withdrawal from Iraq.

James Dobbins of Rand Corp., a former Bush administration envoy, called the move to increase the American presence among Iraqi police an “appropriate response to a serious emerging threat.”

After nearly three years in which they have placed far more emphasis on controlling and building up the Iraqi military, administration officials have acknowledged a need to exert more influence over the police, he said.

“They are concerned, and their concerns may have been heightened in recent weeks as a result of some very serious cases of abuse,” said Dobbins, who directs Rand’s International Security and Defense Policy Center. “It’s possible those concerns accelerated what was underway and gave it a higher emphasis.”

Though Iraq is technically a sovereign nation, a United Nations resolution passed last year gives U.S.-led forces the authority “to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq.”

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently described 2006 as “the year of the police” in Iraq.

This year, retired Army Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich prepared a brief for Khalilzad, arguing that the police were more important than the army in fighting the insurgency.

Speaking to reporters last week in Baghdad, Khalilzad said interior minister would be one of the key posts to fill in the new government.

“The police force has to be credible with the communities of Iraq,” he said. “It has to have the confidence of all the people of Iraq. That’s why the selection of the minister of interior will be very important. It will send a message. You can’t have someone who is regarded as sectarian. You have to have someone who has the confidence of all communities.”

Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Borzou Daragahi and Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad contributed to this report.