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U.S. Expands Training to Address Iraqi Police Woes

Times Staff Writer

U.S. officials have revamped and expanded training programs for Iraqi police units amid mounting concern that their focus on fighting insurgents, and not protecting citizens, has created an unaccountable force plagued by corruption and rights abuses.

The police units are under the Iraqi Interior Ministry, led by Bayan Jabr, a Shiite Muslim with ties to a sectarian militia. The predominantly Shiite force has become highly politicized and is accused of torture and death squad operations against Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority.

Those concerns were reinforced Wednesday by the State Department, which highlighted Iraq’s “climate of extreme violence in which people were killed for political and other reasons” in its annual global human rights report.

“Reports increased of killings by the government or its agents that may have been politically motivated,” the report says. “Members of sectarian militias dominated police units to varying degrees and in different parts of the country.”

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Problems with the fledgling force have been exacerbated by a lack of steady oversight, some U.S. officials say. For much of the last three years, U.S. advisors to the police units have been stretched thin as the United States focused on training Iraqi army recruits. That has led to a police force that has access to modern equipment, weapons and vehicles, but no track record of keeping control of its hardware, much less its personnel, the officials say.

To address concerns about abuses and improve accountability, the Bush administration has tripled the number of training teams being attached to police forces throughout the nation and expanded police training academies in Jordan and Iraq.

Some U.S. advisors say they are concerned about the consequences of training courses that have skewed toward weapons handling and battlefield tactics and not dealt enough with human rights, investigations and administration.

“There is a tension between survival and defeating the insurgency of the moment, versus where we know we have to get in a civil democratic society,” said Robert M. Witajewski, the top civilian police trainer and director of the U.S. Embassy’s Narcotics, Law Enforcement and Correctional Affairs program. “It’s walking a fine line. You can over-militarize the police, and all you’re doing is creating an entity that could cause a coup down the road.”

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Even as the Bush administration revamps the program, U.S. military officials defend their efforts, pointing to the fine balance between training police to fight insurgents in the short term and creating a permanent force capable of enforcing law and order after American troops leave.

“We’re trained to kill. That’s what we’re good at -- kinetic warfare,” said Lt. Col. Peter Cross, a California Guardsman with the 49th Military Police Brigade training task force. “There’s no real doctrine for training an indigenous police force, so we’re having to make up a lot of this on the fly, under fire.”

Despite the planned overhaul, the training programs remain an exercise with extremely high stakes and little certainty of success.

The focus on the Iraqi army meant that while thousands of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers shared space at military bases and conducted joint operations throughout last year, by the end of 2005 there were only 700 U.S. police trainers for an Iraqi police force of more than 100,000.

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Trainers now acknowledge that was a mistake that allowed the Interior Ministry forces to grow into an inscrutable bureaucracy of overlapping jurisdictions and tangled lines of authority.

“We’re not starting from ground zero,” said Witajewski, whose State Department program, with an annual budget of $1 billion, covers the cost of much of the police training in Iraq and will eventually take over advisory functions at the Interior Ministry once the U.S. military draws down. “We’re starting from the second sub-basement.”

Time is against the effort. The U.S. public’s support for the troop presence in Iraq is waning even as the Sunni-led insurgency appears to be intensifying. The bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra last month drove the two Muslim sects to the brink of civil war.

Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Peterson, the top U.S. police trainer in Iraq, said that more than 120,000 police officers had been trained so far and that 80,000 more still needed to attend academy courses, surpassing the original goal of a 76,000-strong force. The increased number, however, reflects the problems with the training effort.

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U.S. trainers said they badly underestimated how many police it would take to stabilize Iraq. The higher recruitment figures also take into account thousands of recruits who abandoned their posts or didn’t report for duty after attending academies. Peterson said that thousands of inadequately trained officers also needed to take courses.

The new figures also take into account an unknown number of “ghost recruits,” fictitious trainees listed by corrupt Iraqi administrators so they could pocket training funds. U.S. trainers said they were investigating the Sulaymaniya police academy for having only 226 graduates after three sessions -- a much smaller number than other academies. U.S. officials said they suspected administrators engaged in “fraud and corruption.”

U.S. teams have the added task of conducting detailed readiness evaluations and inventories to locate hundreds of millions of dollars in vehicles, guns, ammunition and other police equipment that was distributed to local Iraqi stations without properly informing the Interior Ministry or obtaining receipts.

Of the $1.2 billion in materials given to Iraqi police since March 2003, unaccounted equipment could total $500 million in value, trainers said. In their haste to put materials in the hands of poorly equipped officers, U.S. officials said, military units often bypassed effective accounting methods.

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“In the past, almost any coalition member could call us and say, “I need this,’ ” and we would send it to that coalition member,” said Col. Eric Weiderman, a logistics officer for the training corps. “And that seemed OK, but that coalition member rotates, or never responds to sending the hand receipts back to us, etc.”

When Iraqi receipts did come in, said Weiderman, who arrived in July, “it’s in Arabic and when you get a translator to look at it, it says, ‘Muhammad.’ ”

Iraqi police officials say they have no effective way of tracking equipment or money. The ministry still pays more than 200,000 employees in cash, and keeps payroll records on paper.

A company that sold Iraqi police forces 1,000 mounted machine guns and 1,500 AK-47 rifles was never paid and a couple of months ago demanded that the government return the weapons.

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Dozens of the high-caliber mounted machine guns were lost, a lawyer representing the company said, and nearly all of the AK-47 rifles disappeared.

“The ministry had no way to account for them,” the lawyer said.

Weiderman said he believed that much of the equipment reached the right Iraqi units, but he acknowledged that distribution “became very murky.”

“I think about this stuff all the time....I don’t want to waste a bunch of money,” he said. “Plus, I really want to do the right thing and show [the Iraqis] the right thing.”

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There are now 13 police training academies, including one in Jordan. Most of them provide basic training, though some specialize in investigative techniques and management. The U.S. military has tripled the number of its mobile training teams -- groups of 15 to 25 civilian and military police trainers, who visit far-flung police stations to conduct readiness assessments. The teams will also embed with Iraqi police units to extend training into the field.

As the training program is overhauled, Maj. Gen. Peterson said, U.S. advisors will focus on human rights, a serious issue for Interior Ministry forces.

Last year, hundreds of bodies, mostly of Sunni men, started showing up in garbage dumps and sewage plants bound with police handcuffs and with execution-style gunshot wounds to the head. In November, U.S. forces discovered a secret prison run by Interior Ministry officials with links to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, where Sunni inmates had allegedly been tortured and killed in retaliation for insurgent attacks.

U.S. officials suspected that Iraqi police officers who worked at the illegal prison had received American training in interrogation.

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U.S. trainers also have given extensive support to the National Police, 27 brigades of heavily armed commandos formerly known as the Special Police. The commandos have been accused of a series of abuses, including the death of 14 Sunni Arabs who were locked in an airtight van last summer.

Peterson said that Interior Minister Jabr had fired four brigade commanders over allegations of abuse and corruption. The most notorious commando unit, the Wolf Brigade, was recently renamed the “Freedom Brigade.”

“It’s about changing images,” Peterson said. “We’re trying to create the new culture, new representations.”

Even as the trainers try to change attitudes and cultural norms in the Iraqi police, they are confronting challenges in the U.S. military. Often American advisors find that their priorities clash with those of U.S. combat units that hope the Iraqis will soon take the lead in the counterinsurgency.

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“If we’re going to leave the country at some point, the Iraqis are going to have to know how to fight crime -- not just terrorists,” said one trainer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But we’ve got a lot of military guys who just want to kill terrorists. You could kill all the terrorists today, but if the police are too heavy-handed, the populace is just going to resent and fear them. And tomorrow, you’re going to create more insurgents.”


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