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Sect bias in Iraq criticized

Times Staff Writer

A departing major general who oversaw the U.S. military operation in northern Iraq delivered blunt criticism Friday of the ministry that manages Iraqi police forces, accusing it of “foot dragging” in hiring desperately needed officers because of sectarian bias.

The comments put in stark terms the sectarian divisions in Iraq’s Shiite-led Interior Ministry, which has been beset by allegations of infiltration by Shiite Muslim militiamen and human rights violations, including torture. U.S. officials are rarely so openly critical of the agencies with which they are nominally partnering to try to stabilize the country.

The comments also ran counter to recent remarks by the U.S. ambassador here, who said strides had been made in bringing Sunni Arabs into the police forces.

Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who will soon conclude his 15-month term commanding the U.S. forces in northern provinces, said he had negotiated Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s approval in May for the Interior Ministry to hire 6,000 additional Iraqi police officers for Diyala province north of Baghdad.

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Mixon said he had hoped the officers would be a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to reflect the region’s ethnic and religious makeup -- especially Sunnis, who make up a large share of the population. But six months later, he said, the officers had still not been hired because of “certain individuals trying to influence who is being hired.”

“The problem we’re dealing with now is what still appears to be sectarian divides in the Ministry of Interior that is responsible for the support to the police,” he said, speaking via teleconference from Camp Speicher, outside the northern city of Tikrit.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done down there to do away with the sectarian decision-making that occurs in the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad.”

Brig. Gen. Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the ministry, disputed the allegation and said the agency had made great strides in making the police force more reflective of the population.

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“In the ministry, the issue of a national balance is a really very important point, and taking into consideration that the recruits will be from all over the spectrum,” he said. “Not accepting a certain segment is not true and is not accepted.”

At the heart of the issue has been the U.S. desire to bring the so-called concerned citizen groups into the security forces. The U.S. says the groups have been key to recent successes tamping down both sectarian violence and attacks on American troops, and that intelligence tips generated by members have led to massive weapon seizures and the killing and capture of suspected terrorists.

But in many cases, the groups’ members are former Sunni insurgents.

Americans think the former insurgents have demonstrated enough good faith to be included in the security forces, and that the role would give them more allegiance to the Iraqi state. Shiites are leery and fear the Sunnis could use their new positions within the police force to continue carrying out insurgent activities.

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On Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said: “We have seen an increasing number of individuals coming forward saying, ‘We don’t want to carry a gun for anybody except the government if we can get a salary.’ ”

As part of efforts at national reconciliation, Crocker noted, Maliki had approved a plan to incorporate 1,700 men from a Sunni suburb west of Baghdad into the police forces, “even though a number of them had clearly been part of the Sunni insurgency.”

But at the same time, Maliki, who is a Shiite, issued a statement this month in which he decried the U.S. efforts with these citizen groups, saying they amounted to arming nongovernmental militias of which there was little oversight or control.

In Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province that for a time was the most dangerous place for U.S. troops this year, American military officials say a citizen group was instrumental in bringing stability. Its members man checkpoints in their khaki T-shirts and reflective belts and provide security for municipal repair work, among other things.

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However, a commander in the group recently complained to a reporter that Iraqi police were refusing to accept members into the police force and were only hiring Shiites.

“It appears to us that there’s some foot-dragging going on in the Ministry of Interior that needs to be stopped,” Mixon said in his remarks. “We need to hire a balanced force so that we can improve the security situation in Diyala.”

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christian.berthelsen@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis, Ned Parker and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.


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