“Police, police, police!”
Young recruits cradling make-believe machine guns lined up in front of a building, identified themselves three times in Arabic, then burst through the door.
The drill may have been standard, but the class at the police training center here was not: For the first time, the class -- 1,830 cadets who graduated Jan. 21 -- included as many Sunni as Shiite Muslims.
They are part of an effort to overhaul the national police, a force that is equated in the minds of many Iraqis with Shiite death squads that kidnap, torture and kill Sunnis, whose bodies once turned up by the dozens each day in Baghdad’s garbage dumps and sewers.
Last year, national police chief Maj. Gen. Hussein Awadi sent recruiting teams into former Sunni insurgent strongholds such as Anbar and Diyala provinces to persuade Sunnis to join the overwhelmingly Shiite force. He has also pulled hundreds of corrupt and abusive policemen off the streets; standardized uniforms, equipment and training; and introduced a computerized payroll to help reduce fraud.
But his biggest challenge, he said, is convincing his critics that the national police force has changed. As recently as September, an independent U.S. commission recommended that the force be disbanded.
“It has become something like the hanger on which everyone hangs their dirty laundry,” said the wiry commander, fingering worry beads at his office in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, about 80 miles northwest of the Numaniya training center. Every time there is an abuse of authority, the assumption is that the national police must be responsible.
“I don’t deny that there are probably still some mistakes being made,” Awadi said. “But as soon as we are made aware of them, we act on them.”
A commission led by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones found that the national police remained “a highly sectarian element of the Iraqi security forces and one that for the most part is unable to contribute to security and stability in Iraq.”
The force reports to the Interior Ministry, which the panel concluded was so riddled with corruption and sectarian factions that it would be incapable of carrying out reforms.
The panel recommended using about 6,000 of the 26,000 members of the force to create specialized units to assist with ordnance disposal, civil unrest control and other tasks beyond the abilities of local police. The rest of the members should be absorbed by the police and army, it said.
U.S. military officials in Iraq acknowledge major shortcomings in the national police, but say Iraqi leaders are weeding out sectarian elements.
“They chose an option to attempt to eliminate . . . bad actors and to then put in the right leadership and train the force in order to reform,” said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Jones, who commands the U.S. assistance teams that advise the Iraqi Interior Ministry. “In this case, it appears to me that their option is working.”
In just over a year, all nine brigade commanders have been replaced -- one of them twice -- for improper behavior, along with 18 of the 27 battalion commanders and about 1,300 rank-and-file policemen, according to U.S. figures. Thousands more have been removed from the rolls for being absent without leave, Awadi said.
But senior leaders are rarely brought to trial; most are reassigned to less influential positions within the ministry.
Accusations of misconduct dog all of Iraq’s security forces, but few are as feared as the national police. It was created to rein in a patchwork of commando-style, anti-terrorist units with questionable loyalties and no unified command.
U.S. advisors to Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who became interior minister in May 2005, accused him of purging Sunnis from the ministry and organizing Shiite militiamen into special police commando brigades. Jabr said the new commandos were needed to pursue Sunni extremists responsible for relentless bomb attacks on Shiite communities and the Iraqi security forces. He conceded that there was some militia infiltration, but denied that it was systematic or widespread.
When the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in February 2006 pushed Iraq into civil war, it became clear that Shiite militiamen were using the commando units as cover for death squads that roamed Baghdad targeting Sunni civilians.
In April that year, U.S.-led forces persuaded Jabr to combine the commandos and other heavily armed units into a single force, the national police.
Under Jabr’s successor, Jawad Bolani, national police officers have been vetted and sent on a four-week basic training course that focuses on professionalism and ethics -- in most cases, the first training they had received. Upon completion of the course, they have been issued blue, digital-print uniforms. Jabr had maintained that criminals were buying fake uniforms in markets, but the new ones are more difficult to replicate.
The last of the former commando units completed the training, referred to as “re-bluing,” in November, and the Italian Carabinieri are now providing advanced leadership courses.
Residents of Dora, a mostly Sunni neighborhood that was once one of Baghdad’s worst killing grounds, say they have noticed a change.
Jasim Kamil, who sells wedding dresses in the Dora market, said he saw men in national police uniforms gun down five Sunni shop owners a year ago. A few days later, Sunni insurgents bombed the unit, killing and injuring some of the remaining shop owners, he said.
“Now, there is a huge difference in the national police force’s attitude toward the people,” he said. “They are greeting the people at the checkpoints and treating people with respect.”
But just west of Dora, U.S. officers say, a notorious national police unit known as the Wolf Brigade continued to help the Shiite Mahdi Army militia drive Sunnis from their homes after it was retrained last year.
The Wolf Brigade once had its own TV show in which alleged insurgents, some of them clearly bruised, were paraded before the cameras to confess. In May 2006, a joint U.S. and Iraqi inspection found more than 1,400 prisoners crammed into a Baghdad lockup under its control, some of them showing signs of torture.
In a bid to curb militia influence in this unit, Awadi said, he fired the Shiite brigade commander in October, reassigned about half its members and brought in a number of Sunni officers. The new commander is a Sunni Kurd, whom Awadi refers to jokingly as his “mountain wolf,” a reference to the mountainous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
But it is a work in progress. When one Sunni officer was asked recently whether he trusted the mostly Shiite men under his command, he considered the question for a moment, then raised a clenched fist and said, “I have them under my hand.”
Awadi, a Shiite, says about 40% of his officer corps is Sunni. He is now trying to make the rank and file more reflective of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian mix.
When Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province began encouraging their people to fight the insurgents they once backed, Awadi said he went to offer them 500 places in the 460-hour course at Numaniya.
The sheiks were skeptical at first, and only about 200 volunteers turned up on the first recruitment day. Awadi refused to take them, and told the sheiks he would hold up the entire course until he had 500 men from Anbar. That, he said, convinced the sheiks that he was serious.
More than 300 Anbar recruits attended the most recent course at Numaniya. Awadi describes them as “ambassadors for the national police to Anbar” and said he hoped they would persuade others to sign up.
Sunni Arabs made up more than half the class. Most of the other trainees were Shiites, but there also were a small number of Kurds, a Turkmen and a Christian.
Some of the Sunni recruits acknowledged to their instructors that they were nervous about joining. But a month into the course, the men appeared to be at ease with one another. They said they eat, sleep, train and pray together.
“We thought this day would never come,” said Allah Nouri Shakir, a Sunni who gave up a job as a carpenter in Fallouja to join the national police. “It is a dream.”
Times staff writers Said Rifai in Numaniya and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.