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U.S. Hopes to Build Iraqi Police Force

April 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Down a dingy hallway that reeks of backed up sewage, Iraqi policemen in crisp blue uniforms cluster around a new computer, going over the finer points of crime scene photographs with tough-talking ex-cops from the United States.

After three years focused on building a new Iraqi army, U.S. officials have proclaimed this the year of the police: They hope a professional police force capable of enforcing law and order will lure Iraqis away from a deadly insurgency _ and end sectarian fighting _ so American troops can start going home.

But until Iraq’s quarreling leaders form a permanent government and manage to scale back the violence, trainers from the California Army National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade see little hope.

``We can build capacity in the police, but we aren’t going to build a safe and secure environment because we need stability in the government,″ said deputy commander Col. Donald Currier, a former policeman, prosecutor and deputy Cabinet secretary for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So far, most acknowledge, Iraq’s police are inexperienced, understaffed, outgunned and dragged down by layers of bureaucracy and corruption.

Even more troubling, the mostly Shiite Muslim police force is overseen by an interior minister, Bayan Jabr, with ties to a sectarian militia. Some units are accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing minority Sunni Arabs.

The police are also being systematically hunted down by insurgents bent on destroying the Shiite-led government. They killed 1,497 Iraqi police officers in 2005 alone, according to U.S. military figures.

Days after the recent class at Baghdad’s Criminal Investigation Department, a suicide bomber exploded his car at the entrance to the fortified compound, which also serves as a detention center. At least nine policemen and 10 civilians, including two small children, were killed in the third major attack on a police facility in as many days.

Much conventional police work has been set aside to deal with the violence _ something American trainers want to change.

``We believe that the role of the Iraqi police is not to fight terrorists, it is to fight crime,″ said Col. Rod Barham, from Columbus, Ga., the brigade’s commanding officer.

Few police know anything else, however. Crime under Saddam Hussein was nothing like the present-day wave of kidnappings, murders and robberies, and the police force was geared more to enforcing his brutal dictatorship than to solving routine criminal cases.

Hundreds of experienced Sunni officers were forced out by the country’s new Shiite leaders. New recruits were hired with little regard to their backgrounds, handed a gun and sent out after just eight weeks training at U.S.-sponsored academies in Iraq and Jordan.

Maj. Gen. Jafar Kathem, the Shiite head of traffic police, says he has recruits who can’t read or write, let alone issue a ticket. He wants his policemen to learn the driving code and basic first aid. But he says the traffic academy has been closed since its director got into an argument with Jabr and was reassigned.

Desertion is another big problem, and uncounted numbers of U.S.-provided weapons have gone missing in the rush to get police on the streets.

Some officers won’t say whether they are Sunni or Shiite, insisting they are loyal to the government, not to any group. But it is Iraq’s sectarian tensions that pose the biggest challenge.

The Interior Ministry has created paramilitary-type police units aimed at fighting Sunni insurgents _ many of their members drawn from Shiite militias such as the Iranian-trained Badr Brigades and the Mahdi Army of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Station commanders acknowledge privately that militiamen have also infiltrated conventional crime-fighting units.

The Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra was a major test, as armed men took to the streets bent on revenge. The results were spotty.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said militiamen blamed for attacks on Sunni mosques were allowed to pass through some Iraqi police checkpoints unhindered, particularly in mostly Shiite parts of east Baghdad.

Jabr has repeatedly denied tolerating death squads and has fired some renegades. But many Iraqis see complicity in the police handling of the sectarian bloodshed.

Even some officers accuse the ministry of supplying police uniforms and vehicles to militiamen, while they wait months for desperately needed supplies.

``The militiamen are using the same vehicles as we are but they are not serving the people,″ said Col. Ahmed Abid al-Allah, deputy commander of patrol police in Baghdad’s downtown Karradah neighborhood. ``I recognize them, but I can’t do anything about it.″

Shiite religious posters plastered on many stations reinforce public perceptions of the police as sectarian.

In the vast Shiite slum known as Sadr City, Iraqi police openly cooperate with Mahdi Army militiamen _ some of them armed _ who run checkpoints and guard mosques.

In Sadr City, ``We have 50 vehicles and 1,200 policemen to cover more than 3 million people, so we need their help,″ said district police commander Gen. Hassan al-Obeidi.

Many pin their hopes on a new government.

``If there is a strong government, we will be strong,″ said Abid al-Allah. ``If there is a weak government, nobody will respect us.″

Meanwhile, the training work continues: Military police from around the U.S. work with the conventional police divisions. Their goal is to equip and train 135,000 policemen across Iraq by February 2007, followed by on-the-job mentoring by teams of MPs and civilian trainers.

Teams are currently assigned to nearly 300 of the estimated 1,100 stations countrywide, working on mounting checkpoints, interviewing suspects, writing case reports and defending themselves against attack.

The U.S. military has separate teams working with the Interior Ministry’s shadowy paramilitary style units, estimated at 38,800 members, which are being combined into a new National Police force.

The effort has yielded some results.

When U.S. forces started working with Baghdad police, they were usually found hanging around stations out of uniform, Currier, from Sacramento, Calif., said. Now, they regularly head out on patrol _ even if they have only enough gas to park by the road. They also stand their ground when attacked _ something they did not do before, he said.

Much time is spent on station management, and many stations now require police to sign for the AK-47 rifle, ammunition and bulletproof vest they check out for each shift.

But problems persist.

Minutes after a long-awaited delivery of office furniture at the New Baghdad district station, a crestfallen officer reported a desk had gone missing. Col. Nasir Hurmez-Hannah, a Christian who is deputy district commander, was livid.

``One day they will try to take the desk I’m working on, too,″ he shouted at his deputy.

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