WASHINGTON — Even as it insists that its soldiers aren't cut out for police work, the Pentagon is stepping up its peacekeeping role in Iraq and bringing more military police and civil affairs units into the country.
It is a role the U.S. military takes on reluctantly, and one it fears will last for months or years.
The reluctance is driven by the military's belief that soldiers trained to kill are not well suited to keep the peace, the political sensitivity of American forces imposing order on another society, and the lack of a tradition among U.S. forces of involvement in police work on a large scale. Even military police are not trained as police in the civilian sense of the term; their duties are primarily to handle prisoners of war and maintain order on military bases.
"You can control a city of 5 million people, but you can't police it," said a senior defense official of the challenges facing U.S. troops in Baghdad. "We gave a lot of medals in the last three weeks to guys who know how to pull a trigger and hit something. It's hard to turn around and tell those same guys not to pull the trigger but read them their rights instead."
But with the U.S. unwilling to cede power quickly in Iraq to regional authorities, as it did in Afghanistan, it appears for the time being that the military has no other choice.
Already, Marines in Baghdad are operating joint police patrols with Iraqi civil authorities, and the widespread looting and mayhem appears to be subsiding. The Pentagon, which has more than 2,000 civil affairs and military police specialists attached to forces in Iraq or standing by in Kuwait, is planning to deploy more.
The civil affairs units, made up almost entirely of reservists, are charged primarily with helping rebuilding efforts. The units include doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers and health-care workers.
More civil affairs teams, already stretched thin from a series of deployments to Afghanistan, are on standby to deploy to Iraq, military officials say. Hundreds of soldiers trained as military police accompanying the 4th Infantry Division have crossed into Iraq from Kuwait since Monday. Other active duty and reserve units are awaiting deployment orders.
At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was vague about how many more civil affairs and military police units will join troops in Iraq. But he said the proportion of such units is likely to increase now that combat operations in Iraq are all but over.
"As the nature of the conflict winds down, which it most assuredly is, the need for certain types of things declines and the need for other types of things increases," Rumsfeld told reporters.
The conventions of international law imply that the U.S. is responsible for maintaining order in Iraq if it is an occupying force.
The Hague Convention says an occupier "shall take all measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety."
The Geneva Convention of 1949 further spelled out the duties of an occupying army. "To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Army has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population," it says.
But the law does not say exactly when these duties are triggered.
"That's a factual determination," W. Hays Parks, a legal advisor for the Army, said last week. "Not until the fighting has concluded and [it's] very conclusive, do you reach the point where technically there might be a military occupation."
The heavy obligation that goes with occupation might encourage extra caution in proclaiming victory, said Michael J. Glennon, a law professor at Tufts University. Despite the rout of organized enemy forces, U.S. military officials still maintain that the war is not over.
"We may well be hesitant to declare victory for just this reason," Glennon said. "We might be reluctant to assume the full responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the Iraqi people."
The military police units that advanced with U.S. Marine and Army units in Iraq to the front lines were deployed primarily to deal with what the Pentagon had expected to be tens of thousands of Iraqi deserters, most of whom did not materialize.
The State Department has pledged to organize a force of 1,200 civilian police and judicial officers from various countries to send to Iraq, and U.S. military officials and diplomats are in discussions with foreign governments about whether and what each can contribute to the force.
The officials are "talking to other countries about forces that they may want to offer up to provide for a stabilization period so that, over a period of time, we'll be able to have the kind of security environment that is safe and allows a country to fashion a new government and a new approach to how they want to live their lives," Rumsfeld said.